10 Dec, 12:23
Ireland's John Lacey will referee his first ever RBS 6 Nations match in February, while Alain Rolland is also included in the Elite Panel in what is his last season.
Top class international rugby is often decided by the narrowest of margins. Ireland's last two games have shown how cruel those margins can be, especially when you're on the wrong side of them. After beating Argentina by one point the week before, they fell to Australia by the same one point margin last Saturday. This Ireland side rightly dismisses patronising talk of gallant defeats but there was still much to savour in Ireland's performance. After a bad start Ireland looked in danger of succumbing to a hammering similar to the one inflicted in June.
However, after George Smith's try, Ireland regained their composure and started making the inroads into the Australian pack that would continue all night. They rattled the Australians in the lineout and dominated in the scrums. There was numerous big performances, led from the front by Keith Wood. The captain looks at the peak of his game with his ferocious physical presence inspiring all around him.
Once more Paul O'Connell was outstanding and he, along with South Africa's Victor Matfield, has been the star second-row of the tournament. Both flankers, Keith Gleeson and Simon Easterby also deserve honourable mentions. Easterby tackled himself to a standstill while Glesson played a key part in securing Irish ruck ball and creating several turnovers.
In the backs Peter Stringer kept things moving nicely and Brian O'Driscoll was back to his explosive best.
Reliving the game has been agonising for Ireland fans with the amount of ifs and buts. But that's it, the game is gone and Ireland now have to regroup to face France.
The French game presents many new challenges for the Irish team. They have less oblivious weaknesses than the Australians. They have a well-balanced side and are capable of wondrous moments of skill. However, they are far from unbeatable.
Much has been made of their form so far in the tournament and they have looked a decent outfit but they have not played anyone close to Ireland's class.
The opened up by hammering Fiji. The Fijians had looked threatening at one stage before their indiscipline reared it's ugly head and they were penalised off the park. France were a touch sloppy against a spirited Japanese team and conceded a couple of tries.
In their best game so far, they hammered a Scottish side that were admittedly desperately short of inspiration in the backs. Their reserve team then completed the group with a comfortable defeat of the USA. So France have had no real competitive game while Ireland have had two real blow-outs. In fact the last really tough game that France won was against a reserve England team and that was only by a point. They are undoubtedly a tough side but Ireland won't be in awe of them having won three of their last four games against them.
Looking at the strengths of the French team you are immediately drawn to the key area. True, France does have a fine front five. Jean Jacque Crenca is possibly the best loose-head in the world and Fabien Pelous is a granite-hard lock.
Their excellent three-quarter line is pivoted on Kiwi convert Tony Marsh. The more subtle Jannick Jauzion combines expertly with him and Aurelien Rougerie and Christian Dominici supply power and trickery on the wing respectively.
This French team's play is dominated by their middle-five. The back-row of Serge Betson, Olivier Magne and Imanol Harinordoquy is rated as the best in the world. Frederic Michalak is an emerging superstar at out-half and the team is captained by the General Fabien Galthie at scrum-half.
Nearly all their game-plan revolves around what these five create and Ireland must shut them down, both collectively and individually is they want to win.
Ireland have a head start in this department though. Their biggest platform for attacking is the throw to the back of the lineout, particularly to Harinordoquy and Magne. Simon Easterby will effectively have a marking role of Harinordoquy. Ireland must be warned though that their own lineout will be attacked by the French more than Australia and Argentina did. Effectively this game will be won or lost in the lineout.
To that end Victor Costello has been recalled at the expense of the unlucky Anthony Foley. Foley made a couple of uncharacteristic knock-ons last week but Costello's ability in the lineout was probably the deciding factor. Costello has developed into an excellent lineout option in the last few season and Ireland will seek to disrupt hooker Rafael Ibanez's throw right from the start.
The only other change for Ireland is John Kelly replacing the unfortunate Denis Hickie. The timing of Hickie's injury couldn't be worse as he was on the form of his life. Kelly doesn't have Hickie's searing pace but you'd struggle to find a more honest player in Irish rugby. He almost never misses a tackle and has an excellent try-scoring record for Ireland. He won't let Eddie O'Sullivan down.
For Ireland to win the message is simple, more of the same from last week with just a little more precision. The French scrum will be a much tougher prospect than last week. Crenca and Sylvain Marconnet will try to apply pressure but the way John Hayes and Reggie Coorigan are playing Ireland can still break even.
The retention of Ronan O'Gara shows that O'Sullivan wants to continue playing an expansive game and make the most of the game-breaking skills of O'Driscoll. O'Gara will still be smarting after the kicks he missed last week and he will be looking to make amends.
It will be crucial to make a better start than last week though. Last week, the support in the stadium from the Irish fans was deafening and the Irish players can look forward to more of the same on Sunday. Indeed most of the Australian neutrals will probably shout on Ireland as well. Combine this with the ability and the confidence of this Ireland team and victory is a real live possibly.