By Tadhg Peavoy
The groundswell of desire for Declan Kidney to be deposed as Ireland head coach as soon as possible has mounted to extreme levels this week.
The general public sentiment has been that the Munster man has had his shot and that it’s time to go.
This may well be the case for Kidney, and this could be his last Six Nations Championship tie against France; however, he and his team will not be focusing on the game in those desperate terms.
Instead, master of calm Kidney will be looking to steady the ship and tweak the issues which have dogged Ireland over the last number of weeks, while gently coaxing his new players along with the experience given by the old heads in the side.
With this in mind, expect little change tactically from the last three games; the difference one must hope to see is that the execution will be different. If Ireland cut out their high error count, then they have a chance in this one.
The lineout must improve
The lineout was awful against Scotland and this basic platform is a must to attack with speed in rugby. If Rory Best can align his darts better and Ireland can attack from this set piece with clean ball, one major building block will be put in place for Ireland.
Another area that Ireland have been poor in over the last two games has been attacking the opposition lineout.
The challenge by Ireland on the opposition throw – especially against the set-piece strong French – would potentially slow down Les Bleus’ attack and give the Ireland defence that little bit extra as they come up in union to make the hits.
However, whether the Ireland brains trust will employ this technique is uncertain.
Healy’s return and the scrum battle
Cian Healy’s return in the front row at loosehead prop is huge for Ireland.
Like tighthead prop Mike Ross, Healy is one of the first names on the Ireland team sheet. With those two pillars in place Ireland stand a far better chance of parity up front.
Kidney will be praying for no injuries to either player because the French will come to Dublin to take advantage of Ireland’s weak scrum.
If Nicolas Mas and Thomas Domingo don’t win a couple of key penalties in this department, it will be a surprise.
The challenge for Healy and Ross is to keep Mas and Domingo at bay as much as possible.
France steadily improving
The entire France team raised their game for Le Crunch with England at Twickenham, and only when Philippe Saint-André emptied the bench, bringing off several of France’s key players, did Les Bleus lose the game against the Red Rose.
The old cliché about the France team rings true here once more: which France will show up, the team that dominated England for 50 minutes or so, or the team that wilted against England for 30 minutes.
Mercurial outhalf Frederic Michalak returns at No 10 for France, partnering Morgan Parra at scrumhalf; this is the third halfback duo France have had in this championship.
While much has been made of Michalak’s inclusion ahead of Francois Trinh-Duc - who was solid and reliable for France against England prior to being replaced by Michalak - it may not be as big a boost to Ireland as has been depicted.
With Parra on, long-range kicking duties will be taken away from Michalak, relieving him of that pressure, which could in turn loosen him up to play the ball-in-hand game he is famed for.
More options in the Ireland backline
Intriguingly, Ireland’s No 10 Paddy Jackson is in a similar position to his opposite number.
He place kicked badly against Scotland, but ran the back line well. He will start with kicking duties against France, but with Fergus McFadden starting on the wing, Ireland have a back-up kicker.
If Jackson is feeling the pressure duties can be handed on to McFadden, while the Ulster No 10 handles the rest of the outhalf responsibilities.
With Ian Madigan on the bench providing utility back cover and another place kicking option, this match-day 23 looks a lot more varied than the group that was named to play Scotland.
France pose a greater test than Scotland
The problem is that France are a far better outfit than Scotland. Yes, they have stuttered through this championship, but their run of defeats will end soon, and they will very much fancy taking on Ireland.
Wesley Fofana is playing in his preferred inside centre slot and Luke Marshall will be severely tested by his opposite No 12.
If Marshall’s inexperience gets the better of him, we could see two or three tries, either being scored by, or originating from, that centre channel. That would be game over.
Brian O’Driscoll’s experience could be the key in guiding Marshall through this stern examination.
Outside Fofana, the inclusion of Vincent Clerc on the wing will strike fear into the heart of every Ireland supporter.
Clerc has a superb record against Ireland, scoring more tries in this fixture than any other Frenchman with eight.
Included in that tally was the winning try in Croke Park in 2007, which ultimately denied Eddie O’Sullivan’s Ireland the Grand Slam that season.
Maxime Medard’s free-running attack-minded play has been missing from France’s game for the last year; his return in the back three is also a boost.
Heaslip’s chance to shine
The other hate figure over the last number of weeks – in addition to Kidney – has been captain Jamie Heaslip.
He has been subjected to dog’s abuse over his supposed lack of leadership, decision-making and suitability as captain.
This is his chance to silence those doubters - for now at least.
A strong performance from the No 8 will a) prevent more vitriol being sent his way by the press and public in the build-up to the Italy game, and b) end his own run of average form, which will inspire those around him to do likewise.
It’s a massive game for the former Newbridge College student and Ireland need a big show from him.
One of his best performances in a green shirt came in Ireland’s 30-21 win over France in 2009: he must channel that performance into his play on Saturday.
Massive pressure on both head coaches
Two solid performances, preferably with the outcome of four points, is what Kidney needs as he bids to have his contract renewed by the IRFU.
Ireland have looked more rudderless in their last two games than ever before under Kidney.
This game could be the one that decides his fate and he will have some choice words to rally his troops in the bowels of the Aviva on Saturday.
France supremo Saint-André is also under immense pressure with his side right in the Wooden Spoon dogfight; Les Bleus last won the championship’s booby prize in 1999 and if his team claim the award this year, the player who was known as the Piglet could be squealing for mercy from the FFR.
With so much at stake, expect a very passionate and tightly matched game.
If Ireland fail to raise their execution levels they should be soundly beaten.
However, my hunch is that this will be a greatly improved Ireland performance, but one that may fall just short of a much improved 80-minute performance from France.
France to win by six.
Ireland v France, RBS 6 Nations, Aviva Stadium, Saturday 9 March, kick-off 17:00:
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney 14 Fergus McFadden 13 Brian O'Driscoll 12 Luke Marshall 11 Keith Earls 10 Paddy Jackson 9 Conor Murray 1 Cian Healy 2 Rory Best 3 Mike Ross 4 Mike McCarthy 5 Donnacha Ryan 6 Peter O'Mahony 7 Sean O'Brien 8 Jamie Heaslip (captain).
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin 17 David Kilcoyne 18 Stephen Archer 19 Donncha O’Callaghan 20 Iain Henderson 21 Eoin Reddan 22 Ian Madigan 23 Luke Fitzgerald.
France: 15 Yoann Huget 14 Vincent Clerc 13 Florian Fritz 12 Wesley Fofana 11 Maxime Medard 10 Frederic Michalak 9 Morgan Parra 1 Thomas Domingo 2 Benjamin Kayser 3 Nicolas Mas 4 Christophe Samson 5 Yoann Maestri 6 Yannick Nyanga 7 Thierry Dusautoir (captain) 8 Louis Picamoles.
Replacements: 16 Guilhem Guirado 17 Vincent Debaty 18 Luc Ducalcon 19 Sebastien Vahaamahina 20 Antonie Claassen 21 Maxime Machenaud 22 Francois Trinh-Duc 23 Mathieu Bastareaud.
Referee: Steve Walsh (Aus).
Touch judges: Wayne Barnes (Eng) and Greg Garner (Eng).
TV: Nigel Whitehouse (Wal).
Live RBS 6 Nations coverage on RTÉ Two and RTÉ.ie (Ireland only) from 2pm on Saturday 9 March (Ireland v France 5pm) and 2.30pm on Sunday 10 March.
Live radio coverage of Ireland v France on Saturday Sport on RTÉ Radio 1 and RTÉ.ie (Worldwide) from 2pm.