Ireland’s record of conceding only two tries in 320 minutes of Six Nations rugby will be fully tested in Paris on Saturday, with assistant coach Les Kiss warning that the French are ‘very, very driven to make sure they win at home’.
Just Danny Care and Leonardo Sarto have crossed the Irish whitewash in this year’s Championship, the 13 tries for-and-two against return being a proud mark of a squad that is on an upward curve.
Ireland will be hoping it is third time lucky in Paris after drawing their two most recent meetings with France, with half-time leads coughed up at the Stade de France in 2012 and the Aviva Stadium last year.
Les Kiss, who has been part of the Ireland coaching set-up since 2008, knows the Six Nations leaders will have to maintain their full concentration against a team that has a rich tradition of off-the-cuff brilliance.
“There’s a perception that the French are dishevelled, that they are in a dishevelled place of chaos,” he said.
“But when you look at it as forensically as we have, you can see an order to that chaos, you can see what they’re trying to achieve, you can see that they do allow their individuals to put themselves into the game in dangerous situations.
“So as much as they might look disorganised, there’s a certain way they play that you have to be aware of – they are a very dangerous team across the park.
“And when you’ve got a back-three of Brice Dulin, Yoann Huget and Maxime Medard, with Hugo Bonneval coming off the bench, it’s a dangerous mix and we have to be aware of that. They keep threats across the field.
“They move their forwards around and they have a group of four to five players who are very dangerous, the back-three, the two halves, and then (Mathieu) Bastareaud as the odd guy so they can shift the point of attack at any given time.
“It’s based around this axis they build into their game. It may look a bit left of centre, but there is a path you can understand.”
Having returned to training this week after a hamstring strain, Peter O’Mahony is expected to come back into the Ireland starting line-up for the Championship decider.
Conor Murray and Cian Healy have also trained so the Irish management should have a fully-fit squad to choose from – a welcome scenario given the injuries that piled up towards the end of last year’s Six Nations.
Kiss added: “We had a meeting on Monday night – Joe (Schmidt), Plum (forwards coach John Plumtree) and myself – and we discussed some aspects of selection to date.
“(It was) not so much an audit, but we looked at things the way they are, looked at the risk factor around a trip to France and the type of threat they do pose, not only their starting team but their bench. You know they can shift it up pretty quickly, so we had a good discussion about it.
“Tuesday’s focus was on defence, we know they can pose a threat there. We’ll have a look at the footage and will make some decisions from there.
“We are cognisant of the fact there is some continuity rather than just personnel changes, so we are just trying to be as flexible as possible when we sit down and discuss it, what combinations there are, what’s coming off the bench, what type of threats they pose and what way to handle it.”
Table toppers Ireland have undoubtedly benefited from that continuity of selection, with the back-line unchanged throughout the tournament – save for Luke Marshall’s selection at inside centre for the opener against Scotland.
Regular backs Rob Kearney, Andrew Trimble and Jonathan Sexton have scored two tries apiece, with retiring centre Brian O’Driscoll crowning his last home international with three try-creating passes and a man-of-the-match display.
Cian Healy, Rory Best and Mike Ross are now the most-capped front row combination in the Championship’s history, with 18 starts together.
Devin Toner, arguably Ireland’s most improved player, is flourishing alongside captain Paul O’Connell in the second row, while the back row of O’Mahony, Chris Henry and Jamie Heaslip have produced two man-of-the-match awards and two tries between them.
The replacements bench also has a settled, well-drilled look to it. They have met the coaches’ demands for having an impact in the closing quarter, particularly against Italy when the reserves accounted for the final 19 points – including tries from Sean Cronin, Fergus McFadden and Jack McGrath.
Whether they will be delving into Barry Manilow’s back catalogue after the French game remains to be seen – O’Driscoll sung ‘Copacabana’ in the dressing room following his historic appearance against Italy – but Kiss certainly wants the Irish defence to be pitch-perfect from minute one on Saturday.
“We need to be alive, both on and off the ball, more than we have in any other game in this Championship so far,” he insisted.
“It looks like it should be superb conditions…it should be a cracker and I’ve no doubt the French will bring their ‘A’ game. I just know they will.”