Six Nations: Fumbling France have to lose the flaws to beat Ireland | Paul Rees

Les Bleus have afine home record against the visitors but they will need a big improvement on this season's performances

One of the game's cliches is that no one ever knows which France will turn up on match day, the dashing or the dashed, but if Les Bleus are crowned the Six Nations champions on Saturday evening it will be one of the biggest turn-ups in the history of the tournament, and not just because they finished bottom last year.

France have fumbled their way through like a drunk in the dark trying to find a light switch in an unfamiliar house but, depending on how England get on in the first match of the day in Rome, a sufficiently ample victory over Ireland, opponents they have lost to five times since 1975, would maintain their record of winning the title the year after every Lions tour in the professional era.

It is highly unlikely, and not just because it would effectively require Italy to overcome the one team they have not beaten since their entry into the Six Nations 15 seasons ago. To paraphrase Graham Greene, before they are crowned champions there will have to be miracles. Beating Ireland would be a feat, never mind by the record margin that will probably be needed.

France have a 50% record in the Six Nations since Philippe Saint-André took over as head coach after the last World Cup, but five of their six victories have come against Scotland and Italy: the exception was England in Paris last month when the majesty of Gael Fickou's late match-winning try stood out from the poverty of most of what had gone before.

"I am annoyed at the way we have played, but I am not surprised," said Vincent Etcheto, the attack coach of Bordeaux-Bègles in an unrestrained critique this week on the Saint-André years. "It is a continuation of what has gone before. The potential is there: I would not have any of Ireland's players for ours, but they are far stronger collectively. They know who they are and where they are going."

Etcheto lamented that if Saint-André had a gameplan, it was impossible to fathom. "I have no idea what our guiding principle is," he said. "My only surprise this year is that we beat England and even if we defeat Ireland, it should not hide the fact that there are problems. The players are lost and there are no charismatic leaders. We need ideas and an identity."

Saint-André has maintained his record this season of changing his side every round. Louis Picamoles, dropped against Scotland last week for disciplinary reasons, is back in the back row, though not in his accustomed position of No8. The hooker Dimitri Szarzewski is fit again, which should ensure some lineout possession after the wayward throwing of his stand-in, Brice Mach, at Murrayfield, while behind Rémi Talès should offer some direction at outside-half and Fickou will make his first start in the tournament.

"It is what I have wished for all year," said the Toulouse centre, who is 20 this month. "We know there is pressure on us and we will have to be at our most effective, defending well and winning our duels. We will give everything to win the tournament and what makes it even more exciting for me is that I will be up against an extraordinary player, Brian O'Driscoll, in what will be the last Test of someone who had made a substantial contribution to Irish and world rugby. It will give a special occasion even more pizzazz."

The France squad has spent much of the past two months holed up in their training base on the outskirts of Paris, but they have not been so isolated that they are unaware that, no matter the improvement in results, they have not wowed many with their performances.

"If we do not believe in ourselves, then how can we expect anyone else to?" asked Picamoles, who was dropped for one match for making a sarcastic gesture to the referee, Alain Rolland, as he made his way to the sin-bin. "The public are with us, even if the media are not, as we have won three matches in a tough tournament. We have the opportunity to secure a fourth, and that is all that matters."

Not quite. France's extraordinary record against Ireland may inhibit the visitors, although their innovative coach, Joe Schmidt, knows the French psyche well having spent four years with Clermont Auvergne up to 2010, but Les Bleus will need to find something other than defiance to deny Ireland the title. © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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