Irish old guard bid to repel young French pretenders

LONDON (AFP) – Ireland’s Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray have been the benchmark for many as the standout half-back partnership in Test rugby over the last decade but tonight they will face a challenge to that mantle as they come up against the young pretenders of France – Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack.

Sexton and Murray will start at fly-half and scrum-half respectively for the 61st time at the Stade de France – 63rd if you include two Tests for the British and Irish Lions – while for Toulouse duo Dupont and Ntamack, it will be just their 11th pairing.

Whoever comes out on top between the grizzled, battle-hardened Irish duo and the dynamic, raw talent of the Frenchmen may well determine the destination of the match and the Six Nations title.

Sexton, now 35, and Murray, four years his junior, first lined up together against the United States (US) in the 2011 World Cup.

They went on to become the puppet-masters of the team that flourished under Joe Schmidt, winning three Six Nations titles including the 2018 Grand Slam.

Ireland’s captain Johnny Sexton breaks through before scoring his side’s fifth try during the Six Nations rugby union international match against Italy at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland last week. PHOTO: AP

There was also a historic first win over New Zealand in Chicago in 2016 where Murray was sublime – he missed a second win over the All Blacks in Dublin two years ago through injury.

Schmidt stepped down after last year’s World Cup but the veteran half-backs continue to pull the strings under new coach Andy Farrell.

“They are world class,” was France wing Vincent Rattez’s appraisal this week.

For Ntamack, Sexton and Murray, the king of the box-kick, are the heartbeat of the Irish side.

“They are the two key players,” said the 21-year-old.

“We have focussed on them since the beginning of the week. We are aware that the game is directed by them and must be extremely vigilant.”

Not all, though, is rosy in the Irish garden as Sexton’s fitness is of increasing concern and question marks hover over the form of Murray, the player once described by Ronan O’Gara as “the Federer” of the Irish game.

Murray has seen off the challenge of Ulster’s John Cooney, whose form has deserted him, but Leinster’s New Zealand-born scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park is a potential threat.

Sexton, described by O’Gara as “insanely competitive and driven”, may have increasingly creaking limbs but he provokes nothing but admiration from Ntamack.

“He is a role model for me but not just me but others too,” the Toulouse star said this week.

“He is world class, perhaps the best fly-half of the past 10 years.

“I cannot allow myself simply to watch him and let him play, otherwise things will become very difficult for us.”