Grand Slams are great to talk about, of course, but playing France away first up is either a blessing or a curse: depending how Ireland go, the Grand Slam is either really on or completely off! Traditionally, completing an Irish clean sweep in the Guinness Men’s Six Nations has been tougher when we’ve had England and France away – which happens every other year – but we did it in 2018 with Johnny Sexton’s iconic drop goal in Paris, then by winning our final match at Twickenham, so it’s possible. France away in Marseille will be seriously tough though.
My penultimate game for Ireland was at the Stade de France in the 2022 Championship. I’d had a good game the week before when I’d scored a couple of tries against Wales. My usual mindset going into games would involve an element of doubt, or even fear, which meant my senses were heightened and a good performance would usually follow. After the Wales match, I had a bit of a swagger going to Paris – probably the only time I’ve gone into a game, and an international one in particular, not being even slightly nervous.
So I’m walking into the Stade de France and thinking I’m going to absolutely rip it up… and it was one of the worst games I ever played for Ireland! I couldn’t get anything right, and even gave away two penalties – the ref’s report afterwards said they shouldn’t have been penalties, but it was that type of day. I was marking Gabin Villière, the France and Toulon wing, and he just had me in his pocket. The last 20 seconds encapsulated the day for me when I got Hugo Keenan to kick the ball up. I’d won a few back already, and thought I’d do the same with this one, but instead I got blocked, didn’t win it back, they retained the ball and the game was over. They’re a tough, tough team to play against.
The absence of Antoine Dupont is significant. You really can’t overestimate how big that is. I can’t imagine how confident I’d be if I had him in my team because he’s a magician across every skillset the game requires, and the absolute focal point of that French team. You run out of superlatives, but he’s the best player in the world by a considerable amount – and I don’t say that loosely. France will have plans to mitigate that Dupont-shaped hole, but if anyone tells you that them losing Dupont doesn’t matter, I’ll tell you: it matters.
Will France be looking at Ireland and thinking the same thing about Johnny Sexton not being there? One hundred per cent, but the difference here is that Ireland’s system is now greater than its parts. Tonight you’ll see Bundee Aki getting into first receiver at times, and you’ll see Robbie Henshaw and the winger getting in and taking the load off Jack Crowley at fly-half. That is the challenge for this Ireland team: how to deal with their approach in a post-Johnny world. I just think losing Dupont is a different animal altogether, and that’s huge for this French team.
I was intrigued to see who Ireland would go with at 14 against France, particularly because that’s where I used to play, and I feel they’ve made the right call in Calvin Nash. He won his first cap back off the bench against Italy in last year’s Summer Nations Series, and he’s been playing consistently well for Munster, particularly in big games like the must-win match away to Toulon where he was outstanding.
Making the right selections is what Andy Farrell and his coaches are so good at. They’re the best I’ve ever worked with, and you only need to look back through their history of making big selection calls to see they’ve nearly always been spot on. They knew when to bring in the likes of Mack Hansen, or when to reintroduce Peter O’Mahony to the team after he’d been on the bench for a while. The job of selection is probably the coaches’ top two focus points, and these guys get it right almost every time.
If people were surprised that Andy named an uncapped squad for the Championship last month, they shouldn’t have been. He’s been consistent in his belief that you don’t just call people into camp for the sake of calling them in: you need to deserve to be there. It’s never a case of ‘it’s a new cycle and we want to get six lads in’. If you do that, what’s next? Do you just add six numbers to a squad that then becomes diluted, or do you then have to boot six lads out purely for the sake of blooding new players? I don’t think that’s right at all.
He also doesn’t buy into this ‘four-year cycle’ approach. I completely agree, although I know full well that can be thrown back at us because we’ve failed to get past the quarters at the World Cup. Of course we want to do better, but ultimately we were two centimetres away from beating New Zealand in Paris back in October when Ronan Kelleher got held up. You don’t just throw all that out and start afresh. This team was the best team in the world for a long time for a reason, and losing to the All Blacks by four points when they could have won it doesn’t change that.
We’ll see how things go tonight in Marseille, but I have an inkling we’ll do something special to start this Championship.
Former Munster winger Andrew Conway scored at least one try in 10 of his 30 Tests for Ireland (15 tries in total), with Ireland recording a 100% win rate when he got on the scoresheet.