Defending champions Ireland are still clawing their way back to form after a patchy Guinness Six Nations start.
Here, Press Association Sport looks at the key talking points ahead of their Dublin clash with France on Sunday.
Ireland admit to finding life tough at the top
Head coach Joe Schmidt has admitted Ireland’s stellar 2018 put a “target” on his all-conquering side. Ireland swept to the 2018 Six Nations Grand Slam, before toppling back-to-back world champions New Zealand 16-9 in Dublin in November. All Blacks boss Steve Hansen lauded Ireland as the world’s best team after that autumn clash, despite New Zealand retaining the top ranking. Schmidt laughed off such talk as mere kidology at the time, but Hansen’s words have proved prescient – especially when he hinted Ireland might find the pressure of favourites tough to take. That is exactly what has happened, as Ireland lost out 32-20 to England on the opening weekend of the Six Nations, before labouring past Scotland and Italy. Time then for Schmidt’s men to hit back to top form, especially after conceding that the pressure has told.
France looking to penetrate “wall of green”
Les Bleus flanker Arthur Iturria still cannot shake the ghosts of France’s last-gasp defeat to Ireland in Paris last year. Ireland won out 15-13 thanks to Johnny Sexton’s monster overtime drop-goal, that came on the 41st phase of a move three minutes into added time. Iturria admitted to being nonplussed in defeat on quite how France lost that clash, but his main memory was confronting Ireland’s “wall of green” defence. The Clermont man will be out to exorcise the remaining demons in Dublin this weekend, with Jacques Brunel’s men bidding to build on their fine win over Scotland.
Do not write off Sean O’Brien
O’Brien was the big omission from Ireland’s line-up to host France, with the British and Irish Lions flanker paying the price for an undercooked showing in Rome. The 32-year-old will head back to Leinster and regroup, and doubtless come again however. The 55-cap forward will join London Irish after the autumn’s World Cup, but is expected to continue being in Ireland’s thoughts at least until that move. Ireland will only select overseas-based players in extremis, but O’Brien is unlikely to fall prey to any kind of long-term omission before the global gathering in Japan later this year.
Les Bleus young guns go for it
Toulouse duo Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack stunned Scotland with their off-the-cuff attacking flair as France prevailed 27-10 last month. France have struggled under the reign of former Italy boss Brunel, but will certainly want to mould that victory over the Scots into a turning point. Whether Les Bleus can seize that initiative remains to be seen, but there is no doubting the class of their new, young half-back pairing. Should France secure front-foot ball in Dublin, their new pivots could do some damage.
Murray and Sexton itching to click
Ireland’s prestige playmaking pairing of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton have been so far unable to hit their expected heights in this Six Nations. The duo have been so frustrated as to be kicking out and launching verbal volleys at themselves and team-mates. Boss Schmidt admitted their annoyances after Ireland’s 26-16 win over Italy in Rome, with the British and Irish Lions men desperate to step back to top form. This France clash provides the perfect platform for this stellar double act to offer a timely reminder of their full array of talents.