France believe they can dominate us and there's no evidence that they are wrong
Paul O'Connell and Ireland will know where they stand after today, writes Brendan Fanning
Published 13/02/2011 | 05:00
During the World Cup in Australia in 2003, a few days after Ireland had lost out in a thrilling encounter with the host nation, the Sydney Morning Herald came calling, looking for a preview of the next game in Melbourne: Ireland versus France.
Ireland's prize for having come second against the Aussies was to stay in that lovely city and wait for France to come down from the steamy north.
Having been taken with the spectacle that was the Wallabies and Ireland, the Herald asked what the chances were of something similar happening the following weekend. Maybe another thriller to catch the attention of Melbournians for whom the world revolves around the other oval ball game.
Whatever about another gripping encounter, we reckoned that if Ireland could get over the trauma of having let it slip against the Wallabies then they were more than capable of going toe to toe with the French -- not so much because France had been ordinary in coming out of their pool, rather the relationship between the countries had changed. Boosted by Munster's success against Toulouse and Castres, we didn't fear the sound of brass bands anymore.
Having endured a losing sequence of 15 games straight, since the 15-15 draw in Lansdowne Road in 1985, the four games leading to the 2003 World Cup told a different story. Ireland had won three of them. And it would have been four out of five had David Humphreys succeeded with a late penalty at home in 1999. So yes there was a hangover to be cleared after the Wallabies, but no reason to think France should leave us with a thumping headache the next weekend. Then they took a drill to Eddie O'Sullivan's head.
Since then it has largely been more of the same. One Irish win from the last nine games, starting with that day in Melbourne when it was all done and dusted, neatly if with no anaesthetic, inside half an hour.
And here they come again: tails up and still smiling from their routing of the Scots last weekend, an opposition described on French tv last week as "Australia in second gear".
Paul O'Connell's experiences against France in that period have been almost entirely negative. No complaints though. At least not about the French. "I dunno -- you look at some of their results down through the years against Argentina and they struggle but they seem to have always produced the goods against us," he says. "You look at their side for the weekend and it's going to be very tough again."
And tough all over the field. From the awesome scrummaging power of William Servat, who is lucky to be even playing the game after a serious neck injury, let alone leading from the front, to Clement Poitrenaud at full-back, France have the complete package. It's O'Connell's job to try and unravel it at the lineout. No team in world rugby is harder to read at this phase than the French.
"Most of the time we come up against a team and it's probably the second row who is calling their lineout," says O'Connell (pictured below). "France have two back-rows who call their lineout and then two second-rows who do the same with their club sides working with them. So they have leadership and decision-makers in their lineout, a lot of good jumpers. So it's going to be very difficult for us both defensively and in attack to get after them.
"It's not like they are just good lineout jumpers. They are good innovators as well -- (Julien) Bonnaire and (Imanol) Harinordoquy -- in terms of bringing new stuff, so a lot of stuff you practise defending against during the week is stuff they are not even going to do at the weekend. So it's going to be very tough for us. They probably have the best personnel in the world for their lineout so it's something we are going to work hard on and try to ensure we don't lose the ball in certain areas of the pitch.
"I suppose a lot of their stuff is throw-jumps, where they throw the ball first and then the lifters and the jumpers react so it is very hard to telegraph. That's a lot of the stuff they would have brought in, and probably stuff we would have copied earlier on. They are kind of experts at that, especially when you have lifters the size and strength of (Lionel) Nallet and (Julien) Pierre, lifting guys as light and dynamic as Bonnaire and Harinordoquy. So when they put pace on the throw, they're very hard to get after, even when you have them marked. Very tough challenge."
For Ireland that means not kicking the ball out of play. So by keeping it in play you run the risk of getting your kick wrong and having them run it back at you. If Rory Best will have trouble steadying his heartbeat when looking down a lineout where his jumpers are outnumbered, then any number of his team-mates will have arrhytmia when the French start counter-attacking.
You had to feel for the Scots on this front last week. True, Max Evans's flung pass to nowhere for Damien Traille's score deserved to be punished, but when Nick De Luca had the ball stripped from his grasp on half-way, less than two minutes in, it didn't have to finish behind their own posts. But it did.
The scrum doesn't look like it will be a refuge for Ireland either. Two things will determine how they cope here today: one concerns Mike Ross; the other Dave Pearson.
You will remember how impressive Ross (pictured below) was in dealing with Thomas Domingo over the course of Leinster's two pool games with Clermont. Except that it's not as simple as Ross v Domingo. Ireland's tighthead has given us a wonderful phrase to describe back rowers who scrummage with their chests while their heads are up like periscopes in enemy waters. 'Meerkatting' he calls it. If you see those furry little creatures wearing green shirts today, you'll know Ireland are in trouble. It has to be all eight or nothing.
As for Mr Pearson, we can only hope for the following: that he referees the loosehead and tighthead equally, and that he insists on the scrum being static before Morgan Parra feeds it. In Paris last week, Wayne Barnes was razor-sharp in picking up illegal stuff at the lineout -- one offence earned a withering look for Harinordoquy from Bonnaire, for getting caught -- but he allowed France steal a metre regularly at the scrum. By the time Parra fed it, France were already on the move and the momentum was such that the Scots actually found it hard to collapse. It wasn't as if they didn't want to.
All of this will take a huge toll on O'Connell's energy levels. First his season was derailed by infection, then he shunted it further into a siding by getting sent off for lashing out -- and connecting -- with Jonathan Thomas. His description of it is credible.
"I actually thought he was three feet directly behind me, not right beside me, when I swung my arm back. When I hit him a foot into the swing, I realised. I didn't think he was there at all. It was just bad luck and a silly reaction from me. I've probably thrown an arm like that a load of times knowing I wouldn't connect with anyone. I was kind of using it as a kind of warning and a deterrent more than anything. It's all hindsight now.
"I think to have been out for so long and to have got 75 out of the Toulon game and 80 out of the London Irish game . . . I'm just lucky I've a good engine and I can run all day. Now, obviously the more matches you get, you can add a bit of intensity to that running and that's probably something I'm missing a little bit at times, in terms of the ruck, in terms of ball-carrying and line-speed and things like that. So I can keep going all day. When you get match-fit, you can bring a bit more speed and power into that. I've had a bit more of a break than an actual pre-season so hopefully -- what am I on now, game four? Hopefully I'm not too far away from it now."
This is not the day to be struggling to find your feet. Since the Grand Slam game in Cardiff in 2009, Ireland have played 17 Tests and won 10, three of those victories coming against US, Canada and Fiji. So against the more serious nations of the rugby world it's a 50 per cent record. Three wins from the last four games looks a bit better but interestingly O'Connell concedes that the team have a bit to go before they feel good about themselves again.
"It's one thing we need -- a little bit of luck and probably a little bit of confidence as well," he says. "I think a big performance and a win would be great for us. You look at what Leinster are doing at the moment. You look at how Ulster have played and managed to break through to the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup. Maybe the Munster team aren't playing very well but I think there's still a lot of very good players there. I think there's great potential in the side and a bit of confidence from a big win against France would work wonders for the team.
"I don't think confidence is low but we haven't had a great run of results. You look at the autumn and it was a little bit disappointing at how we played and we would have fancied ourselves to have done a bit better last week."
Are there shades of two years ago then? "No. We'd come off a bad World Cup and a bad Six Nations two years ago. I think we're in a far different place from where we were then. So a big result on Sunday would be great for the squad as a whole."
More than that it would divert the flow that has swept Ireland back to the bad old days when it comes to playing France. In 2003, we reckoned the relationship had changed only for the French to re-establish the old order. They believe it will continue today, and there is no evidence that they are wrong.
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