The numbers stack heavily against France. Of the three sides who could have the Six Nations trophy in their possession, it is Les Bleus who are the outsiders.
Having scored fewer and conceded more points than Ireland, their opponents in Paris, and England, it will take a freak set of results to earn the under-fire Philippe Saint-André an improbable first honour as national coach.
On the Stade de France’s playing field the numbers tot up even more dramatically against the home team and nowhere more so than in what may prove the pivotal area. The refashioned French trio in the 10, 12 and 13 shirts have started a collective 19 Tests, 13 in the Six Nations. Their counterparts in green muster 246 starts between them.
As the great Brian O’Driscoll collects his 141st and final cap, Gaël Fickou will make his first start in the Six Nations. When O’Driscoll won his first cap, Fickou was five years old.
Today O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy stretch their world-record centre partnership to 56 and opposite them Fickou and Mathieu Bastareaud line up together for the first time. Rémi Talès, the Castres fly-half, makes his first start in the Six Nations faced by Jonny Sexton, the best No 10 in the tournament.
That is a lot of ground for France to make up at a level where experience counts; in this game it really is difficult to win anything with kids. But then that France are in a position to have a crack at the title, and spoil the farewell for a player Fickou calls an Irish “icon”, already defies the on-field evidence of the tournament’s four rounds.
A week ago they were dire at Murrayfield and desperately dull with it, going tryless for the second successive match. Yet France won. They were brushed aside by Wales. Yet they began the tournament by beating England in Paris – thanks to Fickou rising from the bench to produce a moment of cool-headed brilliance.
“He is in form,” said Saint-André. “We need to see his talent expressed from the start. We have confidence in him. Attacking-wise, he can bring us very interesting solutions because of his speed, his youth and his audacity.”
With Dimitri Szarzewski back at hooker – France’s lineout was a mess at Murrayfield – and Louis Picamoles reinstalled in the back row this is a stronger home side.
The solid Talès, who outshone Jonny Wilkinson to steer Castres to victory against Toulon in the French championship final last season, will be crucial in setting up some refreshingly retro French flair outside him, and will be duly targeted by an Irish team nagged by a belief they should be playing for a Grand Slam.
The title would be decent consolation, not least because it has not been Ireland’s since 2009. Their favouritism is deserved; they have been playing as well as a disjointed France have been performing poorly, and the Irish are scoring tries, 13 to France’s six.
One number is against Ireland – their victory in 2000, when O’Driscoll romped over for a hat-trick of tries, is their only one in 42 years in Paris.
Fickou has already denied England a Grand Slam, but should he and Bastareaud get one over on their veteran opponents tonight then the youngsters can be cast as the mère and père of all party poopers. “We’ll see,” said the 19-year-old Fickou, “if the age difference works in my favour or his.”
France: B Dulin; Y Huget, M Bastareaud, G Fickou, M Medard; R Talès, M Machenaud; T Domingo, D Szarzewski, N Mas, P Pape, Y Maestri, L Picamoles, A Lapandry, D Chouly.Replacements: G Guirado, V Debaty, R Slimani, A Flanquart; S Vahaamahina, W Lauret, J M Doussain; M Mermoz. Ireland: R Kearney; A Trimble, B O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy, D Kearney; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Best, M Ross, D Toner, P O’Connell, P O’Mahony, C Henry, J Heaslip. Replacements: S Cronin, J McGrath, M Moore, I Henderson, J Murphy, E Reddan, I Madigan, F McFadden.