Six Nations 2017: Zebo should start at full-back against France, says Luke Fitzgerald

By John HaugheyBBC Sport NI
Fitzgerald celebrates his try against Scotland in August 2015 with Zebo
Luke Fitzgerald (right) says Simon Zebo (left) is Ireland's most in-form back
Six Nations: Ireland v France
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin Date: Saturday, 25 February Kick-off: 16:50 GMT
Coverage: Live on BBC Radio 5 live sports extra, BBC Radio Ulster & BBC Sport website and BBC Sport app, plus live text commentary

Ex-Lions wing Luke Fitzgerald says Ireland coach Joe Schmidt should switch Simon Zebo to full-back for Saturday's Six Nations game against France.

Regular number 15 Rob Kearney appears to have recovered from a biceps injury but Fitzgerald says Zebo's move would offer the Irish an "extra dimension".

"With Rob having been a doubt, I think Joe should go with Simon at full-back," Fitzgerald, 29, told BBC Sport NI.

"So I would play Zebo at full-back and bring in Andrew Trimble again at wing."

Schmidt will announce his team on Thursday afternoon, with fit-again Johnny Sexton expected to replace Paddy Jackson at fly-half.

Simon Zebo and Joe Schmidt
Joe Schmidt has picked Zebo at wing in Ireland's opening two Six Nations games

Schmidt must fully utilise in-form Zebo - Fitzgerald

Munster star Zebo was not among the try-scorers as the rampant Irish ran in nine touchdowns in the 63-10 rout of Italy in Rome but his footwork, handling and aerial prowess were stand-out features at the Stadio Olimpico.

Given the importance of Saturday's Aviva Stadium contest, with both teams needing a win to keep their title hopes alive, Fitzgerald says Schmidt must aim to get the in-form Zebo centrally involved.

"This is a massive match for both teams. Zebo is our most exciting back at the moment and can bring you so much," added Fitzgerald, who was forced to retire at the age 28 last June because of a neck injury.

"He showed his handling skills in Rome when he delivered the perfect pass for one of CJ Stander's tries.

"Zebo just has that extra dimension. He can take a lot of pressure off your playmakers by giving you that other option.

"And he is so dynamic in the air as well. He helped set the tone for Ireland's display in Rome two weeks ago when he gathered Conor Murray's box-kick after the first restart. He was brilliant in the air against New Zealand in the autumn as well."

Johnny Sexton and Paddy Jackson are vying for the Ireland fly-half role

Fitzgerald expects Sexton recall

Fitzgerald expects Schmidt to recall fit-again Johnny Sexton to fly-half despite Paddy Jackson's impressive display in Rome, which included nine successful goal kicks out of nine.

"Knowing Joe Schmidt, I think he'll be more inclined to go with Johnny from the start because if he started with Paddy and he got injured straightaway, it would be asking a lot of Johnny to play 79 minutes," said Fitzgerald.

"So I think if Johnny is fit, he will start on that basis and Paddy, who has been playing great rugby, will come on after 50 or 60 minutes."

Thirty-four cap Fitzgerald believes the aerial battle for possession after restarts - which some now dub the game's third set-piece - will be a crucial factor in Saturday's contest.

He added: "We were very poor at receiving kick-offs in the defeat at Murrayfield while in contrast, France were brilliant in that area in their win over Scotland.

"I think Joe Schmidt will bring in an extra man to try and shore that up. It's a big area of the game now and can be absolutely vital in terms of momentum."

France wing Virimi Vakatawa
Fitzgerald believes France wing Virimi Vakatawa is not the best defender

France wings 'can be targeted'

Fitzgerald, who made his one Lions Test appearance against South Africa in 2009, believes likely starting wings Noa Nakaitaci and Virimi Vakatawa represent defensive frailty for the French and expects the Irish to target the duo.

"Vakatawa was at fault for two of the Scottish tries going for intercepts. It's high risk stuff," said Fitzgerald.

"He's a guy I think we could target positionally as well along with the other wing Nakaitaci.

"Johnny Sexton, Paddy Jackson or Simon Zebo will get opportunities to kick in behind them and put them under pressure because I think full-back Scott Spedding's positional play is not superb even though he is a great runner and kicker."

Ireland in the 2017 Six Nations
Saturday, 4 February, Scotland 27-22 Ireland
Saturday, 11 February, Italy 10-63 Ireland
Saturday, 25 February, 16:50 GMT: Ireland v France
Friday, 10 March, 20:05 GMT: Wales v Ireland
Saturday, 18 March, 17:00 GMT: Ireland v England

While Fitzgerald says the French are continuing to make steady progress under coach Guy Noves, he believes that Schmidt's Irish will take victory on Saturday.

"France are still very loose and try these crazy off-loads all over the park. With the degree of difficulty of those off-loads, I think opportunities will present themselves for Ireland.

"50/50 passes are great when they come off but a team like Ireland who are so well prepared, will spot opportunities to get turnover ball."

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