Ireland will face France in Paris on Saturday where a bonus-point victory would secure a fourth Six Nations title in seven years. Here, we examine the big talking points ahead of another tense Stade de France denouement.
Battle of the half-backs
The incumbents against the coming force: that’s the headline billing for Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton versus Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack. Ireland playmakers Murray and Sexton have dominated the northern hemisphere half-back scene for the last decade, while Dupont and Ntamack are the young pretenders to that crown. Toulouse team-mates Dupont and Ntamack have swept a new broom through France’s ranks, restoring an old-fashioned attacking elan not seen in a generation with Les Bleus. Murray and Sexton still have all the tactical nous that has punctuated their ascent to the European game’s summit, but whether the Irish visitors can match their hosts’ youthful exuberance remains to be seen.
Edwards defence stands in the way
Shaun Edwards has a staggering 50 winners’ medals as player and coach, across both rugby’s codes and spanning some 37 years of excellence. After 11 years with Wales under Warren Gatland, Edwards has joined Fabien Galthie’s French revolution. Edwards’ defensive systems are little short of magic for the players that work within them. His mix of grit and guile somehow always seems to transfer seamlessly to his players and teams, his relentless but fiercely loyal approach constantly permeating. Ireland’s chances of putting four tries on France in Paris would be slim enough under any other circumstances, but this time Les Bleus are in the middle of an Edwards-inspired transformation. Edwards was basically Farrell’s minder in the early days at Wigan: the battle for top dog status on Saturday drips with intrigue.
Farrell loosens the shackles
Ireland’s rigid structure under former boss Joe Schmidt for so long created a team greater than the sum of its parts and generated plenty of glory days for the men in green. That plan hit the skids at the 2019 World Cup though, and left a lasting sting on some promise unrealised. New boss Farrell has been at pains to tell his players to express themselves both in terms of creativity and personality, on and off the field. Now while Farrell will hardly dispense with Schmidt’s tried and tested methods, the new coach will certainly look to loosen the shackles somewhat.
Keenan and Connors face another level
Leinster pair Hugo Keenan and Will Connors had Test debuts to remember in last weekend’s 50-17 victory over Italy in Dublin. Wing Keenan bagged a fine brace and flanker Connors swiped the man of the match award. Whatever heights the provincial team-mates hit last week at the Aviva Stadium, both will know that France in Paris provides an entirely different level of challenge. If last weekend was an easing-in, this is a baptism of fire.