Ireland coach Joe Schmidt hopes to end France’s title challenge and keep his own side’s dreams of Six Nations glory alive when the sides meet at Dublin’s Lansdowne Road on Saturday.
Both Ireland, bidding for a third Championship in four years, and France have won one and lost one of their opening two matches, with Schmidt accepting defeat on Saturday would effectively end their title challenge.
“We’re desperately keen to stay alive,” said the New Zealander, who guided Ireland to successive Six Nations titles in 2014 and 2015.
“England have taken a flier (the defending champions have won both their opening games and face whipping boys Italy on Sunday).
“Mathematically there is no other way of looking at it. By Saturday evening there will be two teams hanging in there (the winners of Scotland-Wales being the other) and two who will be scrambling for the minor placings.”
Schmidt, who guided the Irish to a historic series of Test wins over the southern hemisphere ‘big three’ of the All Blacks, Australia and South Africa last year, is looking to standout fly-half Johnny Sexton to provide the spark for an Irish win and avenge a controversial 10-9 loss to France last year.
“I think he’s a great orchestrator of play,” said Schmidt.
“I think he navigates us around the pitch really well and I think he sees things very much earlier and that allows other players to get into good positions.
“He brings other players into the game well because his experience is such that his option-taking is often very good and he varies play well for us.”
However, Schmidt has called on Sexton — one of three changes to the starting XV that thrashed Italy 63-10 a fortnight ago — with the increasingly fragile 31-year-old not having played for five weeks because of a calf injury.
Schmidt, though, says Sexton’s ability to slot straight back in again, as he did two years ago in kicking five penalties in an 18-11 win over the French after being out for three months, led to his recall instead of Paddy Jackson, who did little wrong in the first two games.
“You base it on the past and if they have come back and played well then they are more likely to replicate it in the future,” said Schmidt.
Schmidt conceded that with the weather unpredictable Sexton was best suited to adapt.
“If Doris (the storm that battered Britain and Ireland on Thursday) has done her best and blown through then we’ll be able to play our normal game, if not we will adapt,” he said.
His France counterpart Guy Noves — who Schmidt knows well from his time as assistant coach at Clermont when Noves was in charge of Toulouse — made three changes to the team that narrowly beat Scotland 22-16 last time out.
Noves said he had brought in Rabah Slimani instead of Uini Antonio at prop in order for the French to try to dominate the scrum from the off.
“The set play scrum where Slimani excels is one of Ireland’s strong points,” Noves explained.
“We need a super-strong scrum to start the match off on the right note,” added the France boss, who suggested Ireland had “temporarily fallen asleep” in losing 27-22 to Scotland in thei tournament opener.
Schmidt has been impressed by what he has seen of France, only edged out 19-16 by England in the first round, and hopes they don’t click against his side.
“Guy seems to have the right mix and the right players,” said Schmidt. “He is putting the foundations in place and I hope they don’t come to fruition on Saturday.”