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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Andy Bull

Andy Farrell calls on Irish fans to be ‘weapon’ against France in Six Nations

Ireland narrowly lost 15-13 the last time France came to Dublin but it was during the pandemic in an empty Aviva Stadium.
Ireland narrowly lost 15-13 the last time France came to Dublin but it was during the pandemic in an empty Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Brian Lawless/AFP/Getty Images

There’s barely half a point between Ireland and France at the top of the world rankings. The gap between the teams is so slight that even Antoine Dupont might struggle to find a way through it. There was only one score between them the last time they played, and only one score the time before, too.

When the margins are that small, you’ll look for an edge anywhere you can get it. And head coach Andy Farrell is hoping Ireland will find theirs in the roars of their supporters. “Home advantage has to be a weapon for us,” Farrell said, “doesn’t it?”

Last time France played in Dublin they won 15-13, but that was during the pandemic, and the place was empty. The atmosphere this week is very different. “Everyone’s looking forward to this, aren’t they? Everyone’s pumped.”

It is, Farrell said, one of those occasions that make people fall in love with Test rugby. “I wish I was going to watch, walking down to the game with my mates or my family, because this is the type of game that everyone wants to be part of.” Right now, resale tickets are going for €1,300 each.

Like everyone else who was at the Stade de France last year, when France won 30-24, Farrell has clear memories of how loud the home crowd was, and way they got louder still when Ireland fought their way back into the match. “Things aren’t always going to go according to plan when two good teams are going at it,” he said, “so it isn’t just about getting excited in the good times. It’s about the fans being able to feel where we’re at in the game, and trying to drag us through, because that’s certainly what our players felt last year.”

At least one part of Farrell’s plan has already been thrown off. He has been forced into making changes to the team that beat Wales his team because hooker Dan Sheehan has injured his hamstring. So Rob Herring starts, and Rónan Kelleher comes on to the bench. Herring has plenty of experience, but Sheehan has been in superb form, and it’s another blow for a pack who were already missing Tadhg Furlong, their superb prop.

Ireland: H Keenan (Leinster), M Hansen (Connacht), G Ringrose (Leinster), S McCloskey (Ulster), J Lowe (Leinster), J Sexton (Leinster, capt), C Murray (Munster); A Porter (Leinster), R Herring (Ulster), F Bealham (Connacht), T Beirne (Munster), J Ryan (Leinster), P O’Mahony (Munster), J Van Der Flier (Leinster), C Doris (Leinster).

Replacements: R Kelleher (Leinster), D Kilcoyne (Munster), T O’Toole (Ulster), I Henderson (Ulster), J Conan (Leinster), C Casey (Munster), R Byrne (Leinster), B Aki (Connacht).

France: T Ramos (Toulouse), D Penaud (Clermont), G Fickou (Racing 92), Y Moefana (Bordeaux), E Dumortier (Lyon), R Ntamack (Toulouse), A Dupont (Toulouse, capt); C Baille (Toulouse), J Marchand (Toulouse), U Atonio (La Rochelle), T Flament (Toulouse), P Willemse (Montpellier), A Jelonch (Toulouse), C Ollivon (Toulon), G Alldritt (La Rochelle).

Replacements: G Barlot (Castres), R Wardi (La Rochelle), S Falatea (Bordeaux), R Taofifenua (Lyon), F Cros (Toulouse), S Macalou (Stade Francais), B Couilloud (Lyon), M Jalibert (Bordeaux).

Farrell’s opposite number, Fabien Galthié, on the other hand, is able to pick the same XV that narrowly beat Italy. The only changes he made were on the bench, where flanker François Cros replaces lock Thomas Lavault and Baptiste Couilloud comes in as understudy for Dupont. That side struggled against Italy, but as Farrell says, “We all know the magnitude of the game, so I expect France to be at their best.” He was smiling when he said it.

Farrell’s not the only one relishing the occasion. “No, we have not yet played at the Aviva Stadium when it’s been full,” Galthié admitted, “But that’s what’s beautiful. I often say to the players, ‘who here wants to trade places?’ No one does. Games like this are why we play. The challenge is what gives meaning to our commitment: to be there, together, to defend, to attack, to be ambitious. Who is going to stop us from dreaming on Saturday?” Not the fans. “The Irish public will be the 16th man, but they will not be on the pitch, they will not tackle, they will not push in scrum. It will be 15 men against 15 men.”

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