James Ryan, Jacob Stockdale and Bundee Aki will make their 6 Nations debuts as Ireland begin their 2018 campaign against France, at the Stade de France (Sat, 3rd @ 4.45pm GMT).
Coach Joe Schmidt has picked the strongest team available with the only front line absentees being Sean O’Brien and Gary Ringrose (injured) and Simon Zebo and Donncha Ryan (not picked as they’re both playing abroad (well Zebo soon will be).
James Ryan packs down with Henderson in the second row, having played together against South Africa and Argentina during the November Series. The former St Michael’s and Under 20s star has played very well for Leinster this season.
Aki reunites his Connacht centre partnership with Robbie Henshaw. The two also lined out against South Africa last November. Aki has shown explosive power while Henshaw will want to get back up and running after a disappointing Lions tour (by his standards).
Stockdale also feature in the November Series, where he managed to score a try against South Africa and a brace against Argentina. He’s joined by Keith Earls, enjoying a wonderful season at Munster, and the ever-reliable Rob Kearney.
There was talk of a first cap for Leinster’s young sensation, Jordan Larmour at full back, but Schmidt has gone for Kearney’s experience and dependability under the high ball. Kearney, Earls, Best and Healy are the only players starting that featured in Ireland’s Grand Slam of 2009.
O’Mahony, Murray and Sexton all featured in last year’s Lions Series while Stander played in the provincial games. With the absence of Sean O’Brien, van der Flier has a chance to make the Ireland no. 7 shirt his own, as he has done with Leinster.
While it would be wrong to underestimate the French, Ireland have seldom come to the French capital in a stronger position. France have just changed their head coach, who has chosen a 19-year old, with only 3 months of top flight rugby under his belt, to make his international debut in the pivotal position of out-half.
Matthieu Jalibert isn’t the youngest person to play international rugby but he’s the youngest to feature in a 6 Nations match at out-half and the second youngest player to feature in the 6 Nations since the game went professional back in 1995.
New French coach, Jacques Brunel, has a wealth of experience and not a little bit of hardware to his name. During his tenure as French forward’s coach, France won 4 Grand Slams (2002, ’04, ’06 and ’07).
During that time France also reached 4th place in 2 World Cups (2003/2007). France also beat New Zealand in the 2007 quarter-final, but poor results (France lost to Argentina twice during the tournament) led to the entire French coaching staff losing their jobs.
While coaching Perpignan, Brunel led them to a Top14 trophy in 2009 and losing finalists in 2010. Earlier in his coaching career he had also led Colomiers to the 1999 Heineken Cup final, where they lost to Ulster.
Brunel also coached Italy for a time. In 2013, they enjoyed one of their best ever championships, with wins over France and Ireland (their first win agaisnt Ireland in the 6 Nations).
France will have the home advantage going into the match and the fact that nobody knows what style of play they will bring. Really, if Ireland can keep their heads they have no excuses and should record quite a comfortable win.
Ireland don’t respond well to being favourites, though.
Since 2011, Ireland have won 4 tests, France 2 and there have been 2 draws.
Of the last 3 games in Stade de France, both teams have won a game and there’s been one draw.
Paddy Power are offering evens on the match.
It’s also 20 years since Ireland last ‘won’ the Wooden Spoon in the tournament. To show how much improved Ireland are, in the 20 years from the late 1970s to 1998, Ireland held the Wooden Spoon on 6 different occasions.
Ireland, and England, are the only teams to have avoided the Wooden Spoon since the 6 Nations started, back in 2000.
Ireland are 2nd favourites to win the Championship this year, with England hoping to go for a third successive trophy. Wales have been decimated by injuries and Scotland and Italy have promise but are still inconsistent.
Ireland team to face France:
15. Rob Kearney (Leinster)
14. Keith Earls (Munster)
13. Robbie Henshaw (Leinster)
12. Bundee Aki (Connacht)
11. Jacob Stockdale (Ulster)
10. Johnny Sexton (Leinster)
9. Conor Murray (Munster)
1. Cian Healy (Leinster)
2. Rory Best (Ulster) (c)
3. Tadhg Furlong (Leinster)
4. Iain Henderson (Ulster)
5. James Ryan (Leinster)
6. Peter O’Mahony (Munster)
7. Josh van der Flier (Leinster)
8. CJ Stander (Munster)
16. Sean Cronin (Leinster)
17. Jack McGrath (Leinster)
18. John Ryan (Munster)
19. Devin Toner (Leinster)
20. Dan Leavy (Leinster)
21. Luke McGrath (Leinster)
22. Joey Carbery (Leinster)
23. Fergus McFadden (Leinster)