Johnny Sexton says France present a unique challenge to other Six Nations opponents because they match good systems with tricky individual players.
The 36-year-old Ireland skipper takes his side to Paris this Saturday on the back of an impressive one-sided 29-7 victory over defending champions Wales – their ninth successive Test victory.
They will face a French team that opened with a 37-10 hammering of Italy and which has beaten Ireland in two successive Six Nations clashes.
Sexton recalls bitterly the 2020 defeat at the Stade de France which dashed their hopes of the title after scrumhalf Antoine Dupont and his Toulouse teammate, flyhalf Romain Ntamack, pulled the strings.
The duo have got even better since then with Dupont crowned World Player of the Year for 2021, so little wonder Sexton is wary of their individual brilliance.
“With France it is a mix of knowing the system and their favourite moves with knowing the individual as well as you can,” Sexton said at his media conference on Tuesday.
“The Duponts, Ntamacks and [Gael] Fickous can produce something out of nothing.
“They have individual skill sets we need to know about which is not the case with other teams we play who have a set system.”
Sexton says he is fit as a fiddle after taking some hefty hits in the Wales game, notably one from Josh Adams’ shoulder charge to his chin.
And he shrugged aside outside talk that Saturday’s game was a title decider.
“I would not be talking like that, certainly we are not in house,” he said.
“This is just a massive fixture, we have not had too many wins away there and it takes a special team to win in Paris.
“I cannot predict the future, although I wish I could!
“If we are to win, I presume it will involve us playing very well; I cannot see us playing poorly and winning.
“To give ourselves a shout of winning the game we have to focus on our performance.”
Sexton, though, has had some good moments too at the Stade de France, on a personal note most notably when his drop goal with the last kick of the game gave the Irish victory in 2018.
This was the start of a march to the Grand Slam.
“Of course, we are playing against one of the in-form teams in the world but we are in form, too,” he said.
“If we can win on Saturday it puts us in a good position to win the title.
“In 2014 we won there in our final match [Sexton scored 17 points in the 22-20 win] and lifted the trophy and in 2018 the victory there started us off on our Grand Slam.”
Sexton, though, acknowledges that away wins are hard to come by.
“It is important to get a win on the road,” he said.
“You are up against a hostile crowd, the 50-50 decisions tend to go against you, too.
“However, once the game starts it is the same-sized pitch for both teams and we will only be concentrating on our performance.”
Sexton played for Top 14 side Racing 92 from 2013-15 and attracts a lot of attention in France in the week leading up to Test clashes between the two countries.
This week it has been sniping from the sidelines that Ireland are a better team without him – Sexton treats such comments with a weary disdain.
“I suppose I am well used to it for this particular week of the season, home or away they always seem to pop up,” he said.
“There always seems to be something from one direction whether in the camp or outside the camp.
“I cannot control what people say, I try to do my talking on the pitch.”
© Agence France-Presse
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