European Rugby’s big two will clash this evening in what could prove to be the decisive fixture of the 2024 Guinness Six Nations.
Returning to the Test arena on the back of two brutally tough Rugby World Cup quarterfinal exits, both sides will have a point to prove in 2024. As ever, the first Championship in the wake of a World Cup year sees significant changes across several squads, and this season is no different.
Unlike seasons past, however, this year will see both sides competing without their talismanic captains.
A changing of the guard
For Ireland, the retirement of Johnny Sexton casts a level of uncertainty, the likes of which have not been seen since the early 2000s when Ronan O’Gara captured the jersey. In Sexton’s place comes the uber-confident and talented Jack Crowley of Munster; the 24-year-old is just nine tests deep into what many believe will be a long and fruitful career. Despite having shown his credentials in 2023, this evening’s fixture has the feel of a second debut for Crowley, who will be under the brightest of spotlights with a fanatically French supporter mere metres from the pitch. If ever there was an arena designed to thoroughly examine one’s aptitude for test rugby, it would be the Stade Vélodrome.
Fortunately for Crowley, this Irish backline is stacked with experience both on his inside with Jamison Gibson-Park and outside him with Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe and Hugo Keenan all seasoned veterans.
Facing Crowley are the exhilarating Bordeaux pairing of Maxime Lucu and Mathieu Jalibert.
Biding their time behind Toulouse rivals Dupont and Romain Ntamack, Lucu and Jalibert will relish the opportunity to make the French halfback role their own. When one pops the hood of the blue machine, there is little doubt that Dupont is torque, which dictates the pace of the game. In his absence, Lucu, who himself is an immensely talented operator, will need to assume the role of petit general.
Outside him, Jalibert has proven his quality at this level and, like Ntamack, is a free-spirited attacking playmaker with all of the skills to be successful. If there were to be one question of his game, it would be his ability to calm down proceedings. Reflecting back on that fateful evening in Paris where the Springboks and Les Bleus played out an all-time classic, it was the South African’s ability to shut up shop when necessary which ultimately proved the difference. Suffocating their hosts when it counted, the Springbok’s introduction of Handre Pollard proved that in the heat of battle, a cool-headed general is key to closing out a big-time fixture. This evening is the opportunity Jalibert has been waiting for to prove that he is that man.
A show of force
Dictating the direction of play will only be possible for the halfbacks if their forwards can deliver clean ball.
Clearly, this was front and centre of both Fabien Galthie and Andy Farrell’s minds when selecting their teams for this evening’s fixture.
Both opting for a 6 – 2 split on the bench in a nod towards what is expected to be a thunderous physical confrontation, the two sides look to be leaning into what is their undoubted strengths.
For Ireland, this squad is unlike any before in terms of the sheer power of the players Farrell has at his disposal. Front and centre to this evolution is 22-year-old second-row Joe McCarthy, who edges out the highly influential James Ryan for a place in the starting line-up. At 6’6″and 120kg, “Big Joe” is the first in a new wave of emerging Irish rugby talent and looks set to be the cornerstone of the Irish pack going forward. To sum up the Leinster lock’s game in one sentence, he is a man who plays like his structure would suggest, as a physical menace hellbent on ripping into his opponents.
Combining with the athletic freak that is Tadhg Beirne offers Ireland a lock pairing that will not only carry with immense effect but a duo that will wreck the opposition’s ruck ball. In a nod to the South African blueprint that has delivered two World Cups, McCarthy and Beirne will be expected to empty their tank for 50-60 minutes before being replaced by the athletic and powerful duo of James Ryan and Ryan Baird.
Facing the four Irish giants are a quadrant of gargantuan French locks who will be unfazed by their opponents.
Making his return to the starting line-up following a cruel injury which saw him miss the World Cup is Paul Willemse. The South African-born Montpellier powerhouse brings with him a significant bulk to the French pack in the absence of Emmanuel Meafou and Romain Taofifenua, both of whom are injured. Lining up alongside Willemse is Paul Gabrillagues, who himself is Man Mountain.
When this duo start to run out of juice, the world will be treated to the debut of the latest in a long line of Tuilagi rugby superstars as Posolo, son of Henry, makes his first bow for the French senior side. Like his father, Posolo is a block of muscle and already tips the scale at a frightening 150kg. Fresh off dominating the U20 circuit, Posolo will look to make his presence felt early in what has all of the makings to be a world-class career. Concluding the list of eight locks who will appear this evening is the ultra athletic ball carrying maestro that is Cameron Woki. Rather lightweight in comparison to the other men on this list, the Racing 92 star brings an otherworldly work rate to proceedings and will enjoy the additional space that fatigued bodies often bring later in the contest.
As has been the case over the past three years, little separates these two sides. The responsibility that Sexton and Dupont once held will be shared amongst the respective squads by mirroring each other by missing their most influential players.
Given the obvious quality of both sides, this clash would likely be a coin flip game on a neutral pitch. As ever, with a fixture like this, it will come down to whoever blinks first; in such an instance, the rampant French fans will jump on whichever side that is.
In what will be a titanic struggle, the home side will take their first step towards what will be a Grand Slam and just edge the men in green. France by 3.