Contesting a Six Nations title decider in front of a partisan French crowd holds no fears for the Ireland Women’s squad, as they look to end the 2014 Championship on a high.
Home wins over Scotland, Wales and Italy, coupled with a narrow loss to England, have given Ireland an outside chance of defending their Six Nations crown in Pau on Friday night.
Philip Doyle’s side need to firstly do something that no other Ireland Women’s team has done before – win on French soil – and the second part of their mission is winning by at least 20 points.
The unbeaten French outfit top the table with a two-point buffer over both Ireland and England and also boast a superior scoring difference.
The girls in green require a 20-point winning margin in order to reel in France and if that is achieved, the hope will be that England, who play Italy away on Sunday, do not overhaul them with a big final round victory.
Ireland’s last two meetings with France were particularly close, a 8-7 loss at Stade du Hameau in 2012 – the venue for Friday’s rematch – was followed by a thrilling 15-10 triumph for Doyle’s charges in Ashbourne last year.
Tries from Niamh Briggs and Ailis Egan – the prop’s first for her country – saw Ireland take the verdict in what was a very physical contest.
Another bruising battle is predicted this weekend and Ireland will undoubtedly look to use their solid set piece structure and strong maul to do some damage to this year’s Rugby World Cup hosts, who have made noticeable improvements to their own game.
In previewing the round 5 showdown, Doyle said: “We went to Pau two years ago and there were 12,000 (fans there). We lost by a point and we really enjoyed it. We’ll have to focus hard on that.
“It’s going to be a massive game. France bring this physicality and I hope we are up for it, we’ll have to be better than we were (against Italy) but we’ll get there.
“France are a better team than they were (last year). They seem to have got bigger, stronger and faster.
“They have a very good scrum and they’ll make huge strides in a World Cup year. I think we have as well. The physicality (brought by France) is a worry for me but one the girls will relish.
“We still want to win it (the title) and we have an opportunity to do so. At the start of the year, that was our first goal – to retain the Championship.”
Ireland can rely on a scrum that provided the platform for number 8 Heather O’Brien’s tries against Wales and Italy, while their maul was an obvious threat at Twickenham and led to scrum half Larissa Muldoon touching down.
Taking on the French up front will be key to how the girls in green fare in Pau, and they will need big shifts in that regard from the consistently excellent Claire Molloy, Marie Louise Reilly and Sophie Spence.
Behind the scrum, Niamh Briggs, Lynne Cantwell and Alison Miller are ever influential with the latter duo having joined O’Brien and Spence at the top of the Championship’s try-scoring charts (three tries each).
After a slow start against Italy, Ireland began to show their clinical edge with Molloy and Cantwell touching down before half-time and replacement Jenny Murphy’s late try capped off a deserved 39-0 victory.
Doyle admittedly has a ‘selection headache’ at inside centre as he rated the 50-times capped Grace Davitt as ‘exceptional’ against the Italians, but Murphy came off the bench to good effect and her powerful midfield running is a valuable asset.
He highlighted the breakdown as an area that needs improvement for the Pau finale, and captain Fiona Coghlan agreed they need to ‘clean up’ that facet of their game.
Doyle added: “It was our fault, they (the Italians) were taking us to ground way too early and we let them in and we got turned over numerous times.
“But our general movement and the way we played was exceptional the whole way through the game, so I was delighted (with the overall performance and result).”
Friday’s much-anticipated meeting of Ireland and France takes place at Stade du Hameau in Pau (kick-off 5.45pm Irish time/6.45pm local time).