Whoever loses between Ireland and France at Lansdowne Road on Saturday will edge closer to the humiliating prospect of taking the Six Nations wooden spoon.
France is so desperate to avoid finishing last for the first time since 1999 that coach Philippe Saint-Andre is even willing to sacrifice traditional attacking style for an ugly win. "The France team has a duty to win in style. But in our current situation I would sign for a 3-0 win straight away," Saint-Andre said on Thursday. "You've got to make your own luck. We didn't face up to the situation in the first three matches."
Settling for the bare minimum seems unheard of from a rugby team often praised for its flair, but the French are rock-bottom of the table after losing all three games and remain on course for a first whitewash since 1957.
Despite lacking confidence, France does at least have history on its side against an Ireland team which has suddenly been dumped into wooden-spoon territory after successive losses to England and Scotland.
"Our standards have slipped because we expect to win these games," Ireland hooker Rory Best said. "But we still have a lot of confidence in the ability in this squad." Ireland, which last got the wooden spoon in 1998, has beaten France only once in the past 10 years. That sole win in the last 13 games was four years ago, during Ireland's only Grand Slam in the last 65 years.
Saint-Andre left his scrum untouched following the 23-13 defeat to England but changed his flyhalf by recalling Frederic Michalak in place of Francois Trinh-Duc. Tinkering with the halves has often led to France's demise and Saint-Andre seems to be picking up the same habit as his predecessors.
Buoyed by France's strong autumn test wins against Australia and Argentina, he started the Six Nations with the inexperienced Maxime Machenaud at scrumhalf alongside Michalak in a 23-18 defeat to Italy in Rome. He stuck with the ineffective pairing in the 16-6 home loss to Wales and shook things up by restoring the tried and trusted pairing of Morgan Parra and Trinh-Duc for England.
Saint-Andre was heavily criticised for substituting Trinh-Duc for the off-form Michalak in the second half at Twickenham, a move which obviously hindered France, but the coach said Michalak trained well this week.
Despite the chopping and changing, flanker Yannick Nyanga has faith in what Saint-Andre is trying to do. "We're ambitious and our game is a bit more risky. But I think we should keep this ambition," Nyanga said. "I know we will get through this bad patch and come out of it stronger."
Ireland stuck with flyhalf Paddy Jackson, who had a middling debut in the 12-8 loss to Scotland. He missed several goalkicks but kicked well for Ulster last Friday, nailing seven of nine shots. The uncapped Ian Madigan was in the reserves.
Ireland's once-promising campaign has been fraught by injuries — 29 players used — a lack of leadership, failure to finish off chances, and play out 80 minutes. The team has failed to score in the last quarter of all three games.
Confidence is low in both camps, but neither will take the other's poor form as any sort of indicator. "France are a big task. They haven't had any wins, but they're quite capable of playing to a top standard," Ireland captain Jamie Heaslip said.
Ireland: Rob Kearney, Fergus McFadden, Brian O'Driscoll, Luke Marshall, Keith Earls, Paddy Jackson, Conor Murray; Jamie Heaslip (captain), Sean O'Brien, Peter O'Mahony, Donnacha Ryan, Mike McCarthy, Mike Ross, Rory Best, Cian Healy. Reserves: Sean Cronin, Dave Kilcoyne, Stephen Archer, Donncha O'Callaghan, Iain Henderson, Eoin Reddan, Ian Madigan, Luke Fitzgerald.
France: Yoann Huget, Vincent Clerc, Florian Fritz, Wesley Fofana, Maxime Medard, Frederic Michalak, Morgan Parra; Louis Picamoles, Thierry Dusautoir (captain), Yannick Nyanga, Yoann Maestri, Christophe Samson, Nicolas Mas, Benjamin Kayser, Thomas Domingo. Reserves: Guilhem Guirado, Vincent Debaty, Luc Ducalcon, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Antoine Claassen, Maxime Machenaud, Francois Trinh-Duc, Mathieu Bastareaud.