When we sit back and weigh up any Ireland v France tussle, the forwards – particularly the problems posed by such a hefty French pack – tend to attract the majority of our focus.
owever, even as a member of the front-row union myself, I can’t help but think this afternoon’s blockbuster should be billed as ‘a game of four halves’.
This is pure rugby romance: experienced Irish pragmatism attempting to tame fearless French flair. The analytic war horses trying to teach the impulsive young guns a thing or two on their own patch – with reputations, a Six Nations campaign, and World Cup momentum at stake.
Four of the game’s best gunslingers this side of the equator are in town, each with the power to bend the game’s result their way.
Beyond the obvious age gaps and contrasting styles, the primary difference between the pairings is that the French will arrive trigger happy; the Irish duo will be happy to wait patiently for their shot to make sure they don’t miss.
Antoine Dupont (26) and Romain Ntamack (23) have been household names for so long you’d be forgiven for forgetting that their international rugby careers are still, relatively speaking, taking shape.
Last weekend, with their 22nd Test start, they became France’s most recurrent half-back pairing.
Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton secured that particular piece of Irish rugby history just over three years ago; the 46-14 World Cup quarter-final defeat to New Zealand in Tokyo was their 56th outing in green at No’s 9 and 10. That number ticks up to a remarkable 67 this afternoon.
Murray (33) and Sexton (37) have been through a roller-coaster of emotions since first teaming up in a 20-9 defeat to England at Lansdowne Road in August 2011 for a World Cup warm-up game – when Dupont and Ntamack were still in short pants – a match that featured the likes of David Wallace and Jonny Wilkinson.
Their roles, particularly Murray’s, have changed in recent seasons with the demands for increased tempo in attack from Andy Farrell, Mike Catt and Co.
But Jamison Gibson-Park’s injury issues, now and last November, have allowed Murray to rekindle that spark with his old comrade at No 10 – and the Munster man has shown he is still more than capable of pulling the strings at the highest level.
Murray was impressive against South Africa last November until a 33rd-minute groin injury ended his evening prematurely.
He was equally excellent last weekend; his delivery was crisp and he worked efficiently and speedily around the breakdown.
Obviously it helped that the forwards were dominant, the ball was clean and the ruck work was accurate.
Ireland will need more of the same this afternoon – they will have to keep the French defence moving, to find soft shoulders in attack and build momentum from there.
As we saw against Wales, once they get motoring this Ireland team are difficult to stop.
One of Murray’s greatest strengths, and perhaps one of the reasons why he has worked so smartly in tandem with Sexton over the years, is his ability to stay calm under the most intense pressure.
Nothing seems to faze him – whether that’s Sexton’s barking, competition from other scrum-halves, or a monstrous opponent trying to disrupt his distribution.
Of course, he comes into today’s game juggling extremely difficult personal circumstances too – and I, like everyone else in Irish rugby, wish his father a speedy recovery and the wider family well through such a trying time.
With skippers Sexton and Dupont calling the shots, Murray’s obvious French peer is actually Ntamack – another cool customer who has been an excellent foil, with club and country, for the unpredictable brilliance of ‘le petit general’.
Ntamack is no shrinking violet with ball in hand either, he can beat defenders many different ways, but, much like Murray, he is certainly second in command when it comes to playmaking.
It would be a surprise if much of the post-match focus doesn’t centre around the exploits of Sexton and Dupont, a couple of World Rugby Players of the Year who will be desperately fighting for possession of this match’s control panel.
Two brilliant conductors vying for centre stage at one of the sport’s great arenas.
Both men are deep thinkers and committed students of the game.
One will try to methodically break down his opponents with chess-like strategy. The other will be buzzing around, sniffing for any opportunity – a loose pass, defensive weakness or a small pocket of space – to land a sucker-punch.
Days like this remind us why we love this game. Ireland have a score to settle after last year’s defeat while the French rugby revolution is facing one of its biggest tests yet.
An occasion to inspire the next generation. Goosebumps, hairs standing on the back of your neck – the works.
Let the battle begin.
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