The Rugby World Cup is about to get serious for Ireland and France.
For the first three weeks of the tournament, the Irish and the French have used games against Romania, Canada, and Italy to ease into what is a gruelling month-and-a-half slog.
Players have had game time, combinations have been tested, injuries have been kept to a minimum, fairly routine wins have been racked up.
All roads now lead to Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium for what has always been circled as one of the most eagerly anticipated matches of the pool stage.
The prestige of topping a World Cup pool will be irrelevant on Sunday. The real prize for the winner – avoiding New Zealand in the quarter-finals.
“I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, my players are desperate to play in this match,” France coach Philippe Saint-Andre said.
“They’ve had it in mind for a very long time.”
The French have gone about their business with ominous ease. No sign of the mutiny that nearly exploded in the 2011 tournament, no tripping up against inferior rivals and there has even been some consistency in selection from the often unpredictable Saint-Andre.
In fact, apart from some players being kept awake by a wedding party in their hotel in the days leading up to the World Cup, the team has kept out of the limelight.
They’ve had 10 days to prepare for Ireland after beating Canada 41-18, and say they’re ready for whatever the next two weekends bring.
Ireland, the Six Nations champions, were going along nicely until an ugly 16-9 win over Italy last weekend stifled some momentum.
However, being unbeaten against the French in their last four meetings will inspire some confidence within the Irish squad, and pre-match mind games are unlikely to get to Joe Schmidt’s men.
Saint-Andre suggested that “all the pressure is on the shoulders of Ireland.”
“There’s a huge amount of experience in this team and we’ve played in some massive occasions before,” Ireland fullback Rob Kearney responded.
“We’ve been exposed to hype and chat from the opposition plenty of times. I’d like to think we’re all mature enough now and long enough in the game now to cope.”
To counter Ireland’s strong kicking game, France selected two fullbacks – Scott Spedding at No.15 and Brice Dulin on the wing.
No.8 Louis Picamoles – set for his 50th cap – and winger Noa Nakaitaci return for France, switching Damien Chouly from No.8 to the openside flank.
Ireland also made three changes, with Kearney selected after a buttock injury, Cian Healy preferred to Jack McGrath at loosehead prop and Devin Toner replacing Iain Henderson at lock.
Ireland: Rob Kearney; Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls, Robbie Henshaw, Dave Kearney; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rory Best, Mike Ross; Devin Toner, Paul O’Connell; Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heasip. Replacements: Richardt Strauss, Jack McGrath, Nathan White, Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, Eoin Reddan, Ian Madigan, Luke Fitzgerald.
France: Scott Spedding; Noa Nakaitaci, Mathieu Bastareaud, Wesley Fofana, Brice Dulin; Frederic Michalak, Sebastien Tillous-Borde; Eddy Ben Arous, Guilhem Guirado, Rabah Slimani; Pascal Pape, Yoann Maestri; Thierry Dusautior (capt), Damien Chouly, Louis Picamoles.
Replacements: Benjamin Kayser, Vincent Debaty, Nicolas Mas, Alexandre Flanquart, Bernard Le Roux, Morgan Parra, Remi Tales, Alexandre Dumoulin