Six Nations 2018: Win over France key for Ireland - Tony Ward

France captain Guilhem Guirad and Ireland skipper Rory Best
France captain Guilhem Guirad and Ireland skipper Rory Best will lock horns in Paris on Saturday
2018 Six Nations: France v Ireland
Venue: Stade de France, Paris Date: Saturday, 3 February Kick-off: 16:45 GMT
Coverage: Watch live on BBC TV, Red Button, Connected TVs, BBC Sport website and mobile app. Listen on BBC Radio Ulster FM, BBC Radio 5 live sports extra, BBC Sport website and app. Live text coverage on BBC Sport website and app.

Former international fly-half Tony Ward says a win for Ireland against France in Paris on Saturday is key to their hopes of winning the Six Nations title.

An opening day defeat by Scotland last year proved crucial to Ireland having to finish second behind England.

"For Joe Schmidt it will be a case of getting a win above everything else.

"I think he'll go with the tried and trusted, stick with the players who have served him in the past and just try to eke out a result," said Ward.

"It's going to be as difficult as ever but I think we are well capable of winning our opening game," added the 19-times capped Irish international.

"Much as we'd like to see some of the young exciting talent drafted in, and some of them may get a run, I think it's a case of 'horses for courses' in terms of selection and I have no problem with that at all. Then we can re-assess for the match with Italy."

France finished third in last year's tournament under previous coach Guy Noves, with three wins and two defeats, but Ward believes they represent something of "an unknown quantity" with Jacques Brunel now at the helm.

"For me, the biggest disappointment since the game went professional has been the demise of France.

"I think about how exciting and enterprising they were back in my playing days, particularly when you travelled to Paris, but now you don't know what to expect - they were poor in the autumn, including a draw with Japan, but now they are under a new coach."

Ward believes that Ireland and England are favourites to win this year's Six Nations but expects a lot of fiercely contested fixtures along the way before a potential title decider between the sides at Twickenham on St Patrick's Day.

"I think this is a very open Six Nations but the evidence to date is that Ireland and England are the two outstanding sides.

"England could have a few questions to answer, especially in their Calcutta Cup match against Scotland at Murrayfield, as they represent a different proposition now under Gregor Townsend.

"The performances of the Irish provinces in recent months should breed confidence in the national side and if you can win that opening game and back that up a week later then you're going into the first break in the tournament in pretty good nick for what lies ahead.

"If you get that early win and gain a bit of momentum that counts for an awful lot in this competition and you take off from there."

Tony Ward was speaking on Radio Ulster's Sportsound programme and will be part of their Six Nations coverage.

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