Ireland has 6 Nations destiny in hand against fancied France

PARIS (AP) — France has its old flair back but it's Ireland with destiny in hand for their Six Nations championship decider on Saturday.

The Irish lead England and France by one point and a bonus-point win seals a fourth Six Nations triumph in seven years. For France to win the championship, it must beat Ireland at Stade de France and better what England does in Rome. England meets Italy before the France-Ireland game, and can leapfrog Ireland with a heavy bonus-point win, if a bonus point eludes Ireland.

Ireland captain Jonathan Sexton says if they pull off this championship, it will surpass anything he's done before.

“It would be the pinnacle of my career to be captain of a team to win a trophy, especially for Ireland,” the 2018 world player of the year says. “No matter what happens in the game before, we’ll still be going onto the pitch being able to win the trophy.”

That France has a chance is testimony to how coach Fabien Galthie has infused confidence into a young side with an average age of 25 and 16 test caps. The situation was untenable under former coach Jacques Brunel only 18 months ago following a run of 10 losses in 13 games.

Galthie’s rejuvenated side is full of improvisation, quick hands and perceptive passing, as displayed in last Saturday’s 38-21 warmup win against Wales.

“I couldn’t see any doubt in our eyes. It was quite reassuring to see everyone’s attitude,” says scrumhalf Antoine Dupont, who stood out with two tries. “We knew what we needed to do, how to do it and we didn’t question ourselves.”

Ireland was also rampant, albeit against weaker opposition, dispatching Italy 50-17 in Dublin to complete the Six Nations fourth round. But Ireland rarely flows in France and has scored four tries only once — and in a losing cause.

Two years ago, the match was anything but an advert for open rugby, as Sexton landed a last-gasp dropped goal from 44 meters after 41 phases to earn a 15-13 win.

France flyhalf Romain Ntamack believes whoever uses the high ball best will be decisive.

“We know they are used to that strategy. They have a very precise kicking game,” Ntamack says. “But we can also threaten in that domain. Our strategic kicking hurt the Welsh. Against Ireland we'll have to win the territory to win the match.”

Because of Ireland's tactical kicking, Galthie sacrificed Gael Fickou at center, moving him to the wing as cover for the injured Teddy Thomas.

“We know that Sexton uses his kicking to put pressure on our wing,” Galthie says. “Gael has that experience, we had to deal with the same thing against Wales.”

France still has discipline issues to sort out but Galthie doesn't want that to mean less aggression.

“Our team conceded 16 penalties against the Welsh, but when I saw the other team at the end of the game I’d like to say that wasn’t so bad," he said. “We have an aggressive team and it should stay this way."

Ireland must also cope with a French backline that is starting to sow fear.

The young halves pairing of the speedy Dupont and ice-cool Ntamack is already showing great maturity, while center Virimi Vakatawa offers inventiveness in his new role.

He started as a winger in rugby sevens, playing more than 100 games for France. As a winger in XVs he was rarely convincing, but has been a revelation since switching to midfield.

“Virimi is the X-factor in our side, he's got so much ability,” Fickou says.

Prop Cian Healy, meanwhile, becomes the sixth Irishman to play a century of tests after John Hayes, Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara, Rory Best, and Paul O’Connell.

“Every player in that category is a legend of the game in Ireland," says Sexton, who wins his 93rd cap.

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Lineups:

France: Anthony Bouthier, Vincent Rattez, Virimi Vakatawa, Arthur Vincent, Gael Fickou, Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont; Gregory Alldritt, Charles Ollivon (captain), François Cros, Paul Willemse, Bernard Le Roux, Mohamed Haouas, Julien Marchand, Cyril Baille. Reserves: Camille Chat, Jean-Baptiste Gros, Demba Bemba, Romain Taofifenua, Dylan Cretin, Baptiste Serin, Arthur Retiere, Thomas Ramos.

Ireland: Jacob Stockdale, Andrew Conway, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Hugo Keenan, Jonathan Sexton (captain), Conor Murray; CJ Stander, Will Connors, Caelan Doris, James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne, Andrew Porter, Rob Herring, Cian Healy. Reserves: Dave Heffernan, Ed Byrne, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, Peter O’Mahony, Jamison Gibson-Park, Ross Byrne, Chris Farrell.

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More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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