If there is an unusual hissing sound heard shortly after kick-off in the Aviva Stadium on Saturday afternoon it could be the breath of thousands of spectators being taken in through nervously clenched teeth.
Ireland’s medics and head coach Joe Schmidt are satisfied Johnny Sexton is ready to return to rugby after a three-month stand-down to recover from concussion but there will be many observers who await his first serious contact with a French opponent with extreme anxiety.
A collision with France’s centre Mathieu Bastareaud in the teams’ most recent meeting last March – the one in Paris in which Sexton scored two tries to help Ireland win 22-20 and clinch the Six Nations Championship title – was among the series of blows to the head that led to the 29-year-old Lions and former Leinster fly-half taking his break.
Sexton last played in Ireland’s wins over South Africa and Australia in November, since when his French club Racing Métro have had to do without him.
Saturday’s opponents have concentrated publicly on Sexton’s attributes – typically Teddy Thomas, the wing and a Racing team-mate, who said: “He is a complete player. He understands the angles of attack better than almost anyone and always seems to have solutions inside and outside.” But no one, including Bastareaud, who earned plaudits for ignoring the unfolding play to look after Sexton following the impact in March, will be interested in standing off the stand-off come 5pm.
In a useful yet apparently unintentional replication of how a World Cup might be approached, Ireland made it through last Saturday’s 26-3 win in Italy without Sexton and three more front-liners who are back: No 8 Jamie Heaslip, prop Cian Healy and flanker Sean O’Brien. The last named has played twice this season while suffering ankle and shoulder problems, and pulled up in Rome in the pre-match warm-up. Healy has been out since September with a hamstring injury and Heaslip has had the last two weeks off to rest a shoulder.
Physiology of a sort was also in French minds after they beat Scotland 15-8 a week ago, with five penalties by fly-half Camille Lopez and a load of botched try chances. Asked why Les Bleus appear to be so unpredictable, France’s ex-Leicester hooker Benjamin Kayser said: “If we could explain it, it would be a lot more easy to anticipate it. Maybe there is a lack of confidence, which is a downside, but also something on the good side is that sometimes when games are almost over we’ve got the passion and the attitude to reach for the untouchable, the unreachable. It’s clearly something that the French have got in their DNA.”
Kayser also described France as a “young team”, which does not tally with their average age of 27.6 years, but they are the Six Nations’ most inexperienced squad in terms of caps: 485 among Saturday’s 23 players being 58 fewer than the next highest, England’s, and way short of Ireland’s 748. Only three Frenchmen have more than 35 caps: the current and former captains Thierry Dusautoir (71) and Pascal Papé (58), and bench scrum-half Morgan Parra (57).
France have been toiling with a hi-tech scrummaging machine and Kayser predicted another tight contest to go with the draws in 2012 and 2013 and last year’s two-pointer. “We know we can be a powerful team,” he said. “We need to be a bit more clinical and smart about the way we use our power. It is no good to go flat out to the line and then not score and concede an 80-metre counter-attack.
“Against Ireland first of all you need to front up against the driving maul. Whoever gets the domination in the scrum and the maul will have done half the job.”
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