By Phil Rice
Next Saturday Ireland take on reigning Six Nations champions France in front of a packed and expectant Aviva Stadium crowd.
Unusually the top two teams in the World Rankings at present are European countries, Ireland and France. But both have justified their positions during the past year.
Unsurprisingly many observers believe that the winner of Saturday’s heavyweight clash will go on to win the Championship this season.
Ireland have narrowly lost to Les Bleus on the last two occasions the teams have met, and so will have a point to prove in Dublin.
In addition to the significance of Saturday’s result result in terms of the Six Nations, there is also the small matter of a World Cup later this year in France, where the two teams could conceivably meet at the quarter-final stage.
Ireland head coach Andy Farrell will be desperate to show that his team are capable of beating the World Cup favourites.
A comprehensive victory over Wales last weekend showed that this Irish team are very focused on tackling each challenge as it arises.
Recent history has shown how easy it is for a side to get ahead of themselves and lose the short-term focus, which is crucial to fulfilling a team’s ambitions.
Ireland put far too much emphasis on preparing for the RWC in 2019 during that season’s Six Nations, and disappointingly lost their way, their confidence and their momentum. The consequences in Japan were disastrous.
Both Farrell and captain Johnny Sexton have been very measured in the build-up to each game during this crucial season.
There has been little mention of the World Cup, and everything has been focused on the next match.
Wales posed a very real threat in Cardiff last Saturday, as they demonstrated when they stepped up their performance in the second half.
But Ireland had built a commanding lead during the first 30 minutes and subsequently never looked like losing.
Three late withdrawals to key players could have upset their rhythm and preparation for the match, but Ireland showed how mature they have become and took a 14-point lead within ten minutes of the kick-off.
The ongoing injury saga that Tadhg Furlong is enduring is becoming something of a concern.
He has been suffering from lower limb injuries for some time now and is clearly struggling with long term issues. On Monday the IRFU confirmed that he will not play any part against France due to a calf injury.
Furlong is the corner stone of the Irish pack and his power and stability in the scrummage is a crucial component of the team, particularly when they face the powerhouse threats of sides like France, England and South Africa.
Finlay Bealham has developed hugely during the past 12 months, as he demonstrated last Saturday.
However, many experts believe that Furlong is the leading tight-head prop in world rugby and Ireland can ill afford to lose such an asset.
The other late withdrawal from the starting team for Cardiff, Jamison Gibson-Park, has become a key player in recent times for Farrell’s game plan.
His speed to the breakdown and rapid distribution is vital to the amount of space created for his back-line to utilise.
Conor Murray performed admirably against Wales, particularly given the short notice he received to prepare for the game.
However, it was noticeable that the back-line had much less space in which to operate than when Gibson-Park is the link between forwards and backs.
Wales are a team in transition and it is difficult to draw accurate conclusions from last weekend’s victory.
Some of their aging performers were looking ragged at times and Ireland were frequently able to relieve pressure, particularly in the first half, from the abundance of penalties the Welsh offered up.
France will be a very different proposition and they possess the best half-backs in world rugby in Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack.
If they are given any space in which to weave their magic, they can be lethal.
In full back Thomas Ramos they have one of the most accurate place kickers in the game and Ireland cannot afford to give away penalties in their own half, as they did in their two most recent games against France.
The Irish driving maul has been a powerful weapon during the past 12 months, but last Saturday Wales comfortably dealt with this threat.
Forwards coach Paul O’Connell will need to focus on this aspect during the build-up to Saturday, as a driving maul from a five-metre lineout is the source of a large proportion of tries in the modern game.
Ireland never looked like scoring from this option against Wales. Sexton realised this early on and opted to kick for goal rather than kick to the corner, as he normally would have done in the circumstances.
Apart from the importance of next weekend’s game in terms of this season’s Six Nations, it also offers a significant opportunity for Ireland to gain some psychological advantage over this outstanding French team.
Les Bleus may have looked a bit rusty against Italy in Rome, but they will be highly motivated to get a win over the world number one team, as they build towards their ‘home’ World Cup.