Earls back to stop France running hot in icy Paris
Returning centre is only change for Irish side who could make worst start to Six Nations for 14 years
While the Irish will not be looking beyond their own Six Nations rescue act, following the opening-weekend defeat at home to Wales, the rest of the Championship contenders will be agog at what France might unleash on a night when sub-zero temperatures are expected in Paris.
The French wing Vincent Clerc said the Stade de France pitch was hardening during the four-try thumping of Italy that had a mid-afternoon start last Saturday. There must be a fear of a dangerous chill setting in when the covers and hot-air blowers are removed for this evening's 9pm kick-off. There is no undersoil heating, you will have gathered, at the 14-year-old stadium where Ireland have won once in eight attempts – in 2000, when Brian O'Driscoll galloped to an epoch-making hat-trick of tries.
The great O'Driscoll is absent for this Championship, recovering from a shoulder operation, leaving a rejigged midfield in no mood for an Irish jig after a Wales backline with similar qualities to France's put three tries past them in that 23-21 win in Dublin. O'Driscoll's replacement, Keith Earls, withdrew from the Wales match to attend to his recently born child, who had been unwell. Earls is back today, in place of Fergus McFadden who reverts to the bench. Otherwise the Ireland 22 is unchanged, with Stephen Ferris clear to right a perceived injustice after his "tip tackle" on Ian Evans conceded the late penalty for Wales' winning points.
The International Rugby Board and Six Nations committee felt moved yesterday to publicly endorse the English referee Wayne Barnes' penalty decision, after a citing against Ferris for foul play had been dismissed. The true worth of that citing was to juxtapose the unfairness in giving Ferris a yellow card (the penalty alone was desperately marginal) with the same punishment given by Barnes to Wales' Bradley Davies for his off-the-ball caber-tossing of Donnacha Ryan. The cited Davies was banned for seven weeks.
Most of it is water sous le pont now, and yesterday in Paris the Ireland defence coach, Les Kiss, said: "We disappointed ourselves no end last week. It's important that we breathe some fire and get back to what we are, which is a tough team to beat."
Poor starts were Ireland's undoing in Paris in 2006 and 2008 although they have found other ways to lose, too, with 19 defeats in 20 visits to the city since 1972. France have won their last nine Six Nations matches at the Stade de France; while Ireland have not lost their opening two Championship matches since 1998.
Kiss said: "I wouldn't panic if they [France] went 6-3 up. They're a team that doesn't like opponents who bite at their heels continuously and keeps coming at them. If you get a start on them and you keep your foot on their throat, they don't like that either.
"But they can do anything out of nothing and if we are loose at any point they'll punish us."
Last week Italy tried a moderately ambitious style that was absorbed comfortably by a French team who counter-attacked with patience and pace to make tries for each of the three-quarters, including the debutant, Clermont Auvergne centre Wesley Fofana. This Paris-born, Mali-descended 24-year-old will take a lot of watching by Earls and Gordon D'Arcy, who have a lot of convincing to do at almost opposite ends of their Test careers that they are the answer to life without O'Driscoll.
France's life under their new head coach Philippe Saint-André was given a mild twist when he swapped half his starting forwards from the Italian match for the quartet who began that one on the bench. Among those stepping up, Imanol Harinordoquy will be on one flank of a menacing scrum alongside Louis Picamoles at No 8 and Thierry Dusautoir, the captain. Morgan Parra is in for the injured scrum-half and goal-kicker, Dimitri Yachvili.
Harinordoquy, a No 8 of note in his time, said of Picamoles: "We're different players – Louis is more powerful than I can be. About me, I am faster than him. I can play No 8 or No 7, there's no matter, I am happy to be in the French team. Ireland are very strong on the ruck, the attackers always work together with one, two, three guys around the ball." He also promised a more aggressive France defence, even if the style has not changed greatly in the handover from Dave Ellis, an Englishman, to Patrice Lagisquet.
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