Ireland will bid to keep alive their Guinness Six Nations title hopes when they host France on Sunday.
Andy Farrell’s men are already playing catch-up in the tournament after losing away to Wales last weekend, while Les Bleus will attempt to build on a resounding win over Italy.
Here, we examine the main talking points ahead of the showdown in Dublin, along with the details of where and when to watch the crucial match.
Head coach Farrell was perhaps putting it mildly when he referred to the past week as a “challenging” one. Peter O’Mahony’s early red card in the Cardiff defeat contributed heavily to a nightmare start to the championship and the loss of the flanker through suspension has since been compounded by the injury absences of skipper Johnny Sexton, vice-captain James Ryan and experienced scrum-half Conor Murray.
Farrell, who was already without Jacob Stockdale and Caelan Doris, remained upbeat about the disruption but the situation has left considerable holes and is far from ideal for a must-win match.
Gulf in experience
“One man’s loss is another man’s opportunity,” was Farrell’s optimistic assessment of his selection predicament. Fly-half Billy Burns, who made a costly late error in the loss in Cardiff, scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park, and flanker Rhys Ruddock are the main beneficiaries.
While it is a major chance for the trio to stake claims for regular action, Ireland have traded the 184-cap pairing of Sexton and Murray for two players who have just 10 Test appearances combined, and only three starts.
Leinster man Ruddock, meanwhile, has never previously started a Six Nations game and must hit the ground running on his first international appearance since the 2019 World Cup.
Ireland’s 2020 title aspirations were ended by a frustrating loss in Paris on the final weekend of last year’s prolonged tournament.
Lightning could strike twice for Farrell at the hands of Les Bleus, albeit at a far earlier stage of the competition. After last weekend’s damaging defeat at the Principality Stadium, in which the premature departure of O’Mahony cannot be understated, the Irish are under serious pressure to set aside their personnel problems and pull off a famous victory.
France have become formidable opponents under Fabien Galthie and are rapidly moving towards being major contenders for their home World Cup in 2023.
The hosts’ hopes of coming out on top will rest heavily on their ability to deal with the electric talents of Antoine Dupont.
The classy scrum-half, who was on the scoresheet when the countries met at the Stade de France in October, became the first French winner of the Player of the Championship award in 2020 and is being widely touted as the world’s best player on his current standout form, which continued with a try and four assists during Les Bleus’ emphatic success over Italy.
Ireland wing James Lowe is among those to label the Toulouse man as such and has openly admitted, “he’s the one we’re going for”.
Milestone moment for captain Henderson
Iain Henderson will captain Ireland for the first time on Sunday, becoming the 108th player to do so ✊🟢
Get the full #IREvFRA Team News details ⤵️#ShoulderToShoulder #IrishRugby #GuinnessSixNations
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) February 12, 2021
An additional consequence of Irish selection issues is the appointment of a stand-in captain.
With Sexton and Ryan unavailable, the responsibility has fallen to Ulster skipper Iain Henderson, who will become the 108th player to wear the armband for Ireland. The 28-year-old, who has plenty of experience of performing the role for his province, is only just working his way back from a knee injury and made his return by coming off the bench against Wales.
Henderson surely could not have envisaged being elevated from replacement to leading out his country in just seven days but it promises to be a proud occasion for the Northern Irishman.
How can I watch it?
Ireland’s clash with Les Bleus will be broadcast free-to-air on Virgin Media One (coverage starts at 2pm) and on ITV in the North (2.15pm). You can also follow the action via the Irish Times liveblog from around 2.15pm. Kick-off is at 3pm.
Saturday’s fixtures will also be on Virgin Media One, with ITV showing England against Italy and the BBC covering Scotland and Wales.
Ireland will be without O’Mahony, with the Munster backrow now banned for three games. There is also no Johnny Sexton or James Ryan – Ireland’s two leaders both left the pitch in Cardiff with head injuries. Billy Burns instead starts at outhalf, with Iain Henderson slotting into the secondrow.
Ireland: Hugo Keenan; Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Billy Burns, Jamison Gibson-Park; Cian Healy, Rob Herring, Andrew Porter; Tadhg Beirne, Iain Henderson (capt); Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier, CJ Stander. Replacements: Ronan Kelleher, Ed Byrne, Tadhg Furlong, Ultan Dillane, Will Connors, Craig Casey, Ross Byrne, Jordan Larmour.
France meanwhile make two changes – Anthony Jelonch comes in for Dylan Cretin in the back ow and Damian Penaud starts instead of Teddy Thomas on the wing.
France: Brice Dulin; Damian Penaud, Arthur Vincent, Gael Fickou, Gabin Villiere; Matthieu Jalibert, Antoine Dupont; Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand, Mohamed Haouas; Bernard Le Roux, Paul Willemse; Anthony Jelonch, Charles Ollivon (captain), Gregory Alldritt. Replacements: Pierre Bourgarit, Hassane Kolingar, Uini Atonio, Romain Taofifenua, Dylan Cretin, Baptiste Serin, Anthony Boutier, Teddy Thomas