The winner of Pool D will be decided this Sunday in Cardiff, with both Ireland and France vying for the top spot of the group. A win for Ireland means they avoid reigning champions New Zealand, instead taking on Los Pumas in the Rugby World Cup Quarter Finals. After back to back victories against Les Bleus, Ireland will fancy their chances against Phillipe Saint-Andre’s mercurial men.

Here’s a few notes & thoughts on this weekend’s big game.

Predictable Ireland?

On paper it looks like Ireland will play a narrow span of attack, kick the ball a lot, and attempt to grind out an attritional win against the 2011 finalists. Earls adds more cutting edge to the midfield, but an injury forced decision is unlikely to deter Schmidt from his intended game plan – exactly the game plan Saint-Andre will have expected, and one that is very much in line with how Ireland have played under Joe Schmidt. We’ve beaten France the last two times with this plan, but should they be the wiser the third time around?

One of the criticisms against France is that they’re lazy, and that they tire quicker than most teams. They’re a big physical outfit, so their fitness levels will bear the brunt of that. But if Ireland play as their team selection indicates, they won’t attempt to expose France on this. Instead, they’ll look to match them in the contact – a dangerous ploy, especially with Jared Payne absent – and use a superior kicking game and disciplinary record to score a famous win. This is all entirely possible, with France’s poor discipline & mixed scrum woes thus far in the tournament, but you would expect France have an idea on what they’re getting themselves into.

Irish fans have clung onto the belief that we’ve been holding back, and that Joe Schmidt has something up his sleeve – time to find out how true that is.

Dulin on the wing; return of Bowe

The 25 year old Racing Metro fullback starts on the left wing this weekend, a reshuffle brought about by an injury to Yohann Huget. A former teammate of Sexton, Dulin will have an idea of what to expect from the Irish fly-half as Phillipe Saint-Andre hopes to nullify Ireland’s aerial prowess. Although Dulin is comfortable under the high ball, he has less experience fielding on the wing – so his positioning could be an issue for the French. Further, at only 5’10”, Dulin gives away significant height advantage to Ireland’s Tommy Bowe.

Bowe stands at close to 6’4″, and his ability under the high ball is something that Ireland have used to their advantage on plenty of occasions – the famous GAA Roots line that pundits love to use. One bad game against England does not define the Monaghan man, and he’ll be eager to remind everyone of this on a bigger stage.

One of Ireland’s most experienced wingers with a point to prove opposing a diminutive French full back playing on the wing is surely advantage Ireland, especially with such a strong kicking game expected from Sexton & co. However Dulin is a speedy customer, and Ireland’s kicking will have to be precise to avoid giving France much room & opportunity on the counter attack.

Bowe Vs. Dulin will be an interesting affair, but so too will be Dave Kearney & Nakaitaci. The Fiji born winger is extremely powerful, but how rounded is he, and how will he turn and position himself? The French back three will be deadly on the counter attack as always, but there’s certainly room for Ireland to expose them.

Payne Out; Earls In

Jared Payne is a huge loss for Ireland heading into such a crucial game. Criticism of the Kiwi born fullback come centre has been quite wide of the mark, and Payne has been integral in Ireland’s structure over the last year and a half. Having matured into his role, it’s hugely disappointing to lose him now.

Payne’s loss is Earls’ gain however. The winger who was originally reported as dropped, gets another chance in the 13 channel. The Munster man has been in excellent form this campaign, but that has largely come on the wing. Without going into the ‘is Earls a centre or winger debate’, his role at centre is a large deviation from what Payne does and offers, and it’s problematic that this enforced change comes so close to kickoff.

We are now left with a physical mismatch in the midfield – Wesley Fofana & Mathieu Bastareaud are a hugely imposing unit, and we will miss the defensive capabilities of Jared Payne hugely. Earls does not offer the same defensive solidity that Payne does, and defending against Mathieu Bastareaud is a huge ask of Earls’ much improved defensive efforts. France will surely target this late change, and heap pressure on Ireland’s new centre combination.

Front Five Changes

The ever impressive Iain Henderson makes way for Devin Toner, while Cian Healy comes back into the starting lineup for Jack McGrath. Both players can feel extremely hard done by and disappointed not to be starting, but their role from the bench is just as important as Schmidt’s 23 man squad face a long day in Cardiff.

Contrasting fortunes
Contrasting fortunes

Toner may not be the flashiest option on the pitch, but he is extremely effective in what he does. He will bolster Ireland’s maul, which hasn’t been at it’s destructive best. With France’s maul impressing, it’s an important area for Ireland to get right along with the lineout. This gets him in ahead of the in form Henderson, despite all Henderson has achieved over the last 6 weeks. It’s a horses for courses selection, and one that makes sense given the importance of the set piece in a tight affair.

Healy’s change works in tandem with Toner’s return to the team, and he’ll attempt to take up Henderson’s role as a primary carrier. The Belvedere College loosehead is a powerhouse in all aspects of his game, and is chomping at the bit to get back into international rugby. Harsh on the excellent Jack McGrath, but again, it’s testament to the huge depth in the Irish setup at the moment.

Scrum Battle

There is a wealth of display on talent come scrum time on Sunday, with both sides having an extremely impressive roster of front row talent. Cian Healy is one of the best loosehead props in the world, while Jack McGrath has stepped into the position seamlessly during Healy’s extended injury. Mike Ross is an anchor of the Irish pack, while Nathan White offers experience, and a scrummaging presence. Rory Best is another who excels in his own field, one of the premier hookers in world rugby. Sean Cronin is a noteworthy absentee, with the rejuvenated Ricardt Strauss offering a more like for like replacement for Ulster’s Best.

Despite all the talent at Schmidt’s disposal, France will not quake at the sight of the formidable Irish front row. Eddy Ben Arous is developing into a destructive force, while Vincent Debaty thrives in his replacement role. Rabah Slimani starts at three and is going from strength to strength, with the wily veteran Nicholas Mas a proven option on the bench to close out the game. Guirado starting with Kayser on the bench – France are also solid at 2.

It’s set to be an exhausting day for all six men at the coalface of the scrum, with a huge battle in store. France’s scrum looked less than solid against Canada, while Ireland have managed to continually offer their backs a solid platform. Nigel Owens offers a solid refereeing interpretation, and Ireland should be confident that they can withstand the French attempt at milking a few penalties for field position. Eddy Ben Arous got away with murder against Italy in France’s most dominant scrummaging display, and he won’t get away with his shoulders at similar angles with Owens in the middle.

The first scrum is crucial, and if Ireland can get a nudge up on Slimani whilst nullifying Ben Arous, they will take a lot of confidence from the off.

Pressure on Sexton

As expected Johnny Sexton has been the target of much of the French media’s musings throughout the week. They’ve been quick to point out the deficiencies of the Leinster man during his spell at Racing Metro, with a number of players quoted on Sexton during the week. Context or not, there’s a lot of talk around Ireland’s most important player.

While Bastareaud is opposite Earls, he’s a big fan of the 10 channel and has made it a regular hunting ground in recent displays against Ireland. Picamoles will do the same. Sexton is a good defender, but there’s going to be a lot of heavy traffic on his shoulder and Ireland will need their backrow alert to provide their out-half with some help.

This game is going to be a tight affair. Ireland’s last two wins against France have been a one score game, and the two outings previous to that have been a draw. Ireland will need to take their points, and will need Sexton to be as accurate from the tee as he is out of hand.

“What France will Show Up”

The French are a peculiar beast when it comes to their rugby playing priorities. For years the Heineken Cup was proclaimed as second rate to the French domestic league, just as the Six Nations isn’t huge to the French public – it’s all about the World Cup.

France have flattered to deceive for a number of years. Gone is the free flowing flair of France gone by, replaced with the relentless battering ram that has become synonymous with Saint Andre’s poor tenure. For all the talent within their ranks, they have been sloppy, indisciplined and poor. But, they are a different beast when it comes to the World Cup, should they choose to turn it on.

The occasion is there – will France be?