Six Nations: Ireland must keep heads to land title
Sting of All Blacks defeat can help Schmidt's well-drilled title-chasers inflict a devastating blow on wounded French
Published 15/03/2014 | 02:30
A SMOG of war hangs over Paris this weekend. Dangerously high pollution levels have inflicted a haze on the French capital ahead of today's final Six Nations game.
The obvious joke is that the local rugby team are to blame, but having stunk the championship out to date, there are fears that Les Bleus have found the right team at just the right time to spoil Brian O'Driscoll's farewell and wreck Ireland's title party.
All week, discussion around this match has centred around a struggle between head and heart.
Logic dictates that Ireland will win this match and claim their 12th title. They are the in-form team, have the cleverer coach and look better conditioned than their French counterparts.
The heart, however, has been broken too many times in this city for any Irish fan to get too carried away. A reminder of their record of 17 defeats in the last 19 visits is enough to dampen the mood.
The one win among all of those visits since 1972 may be remembered for probably the greatest individual display from any Irish player, but Ireland still needed Denis Hickie's incredible last-ditch tackle to secure that two-point win.
Even so, one by one, perfectly sane former players have queued up to explain why this will be different this week; men who have endured terrible beatings at the Stade de France and probably should know better, all intoxicated by Joe Schmidt's Ireland and ready to forget those miserable afternoons they endured in Paris and call an Ireland win.
France, they argue, are not the team of old. They point to their lethargic style, their outmoded tactics and the Irish strengths.
The coach, meanwhile, is a logical man who deals in facts and demands simple things from his players like hard work, accuracy and results.
As a New Zealander, he has no hang-ups about the French, a people he understands, having lived and worked among them for three seasons with Clermont Auvergne.
In that time, he and Vern Cotter managed to get the club to overcome years of hurt and finally win a title. It should be noted, however, that it took them three years to get there.
With Ireland, the maestro has wrought huge improvements from his team, who this time last year were heading for defeat in Rome after an awful campaign riddled with injury.
A trophy would give the former Leinster supremo something tangible to cap the fine job he has done and maintain his mandate to pick whoever he wants from whatever province he wants, despite unrest down south growing further this week. They have made obvious progress, but the fact Ireland still haven't managed to get that signature win this season, despite having come within a score against New Zealand and England, still gnaws at Schmidt.
Against the All Blacks, they let their chance slip. At Twickenham, they had their moments, but, with the help of some poor refereeing, couldn't take their opportunities.
"There's going to be pressure moments and some of the bigger pressure moments can be in the 78th, 79th minute," assistant John Plumtree said yesterday.
"We've had a couple of bad experiences around that period of the game, last year in November for instance. So we'll work hard to close out the game if we have to and if we have to get that one point, I'm sure we'll be having a chat on the field about how we're going to achieve it."
Ireland have scored the most points in this championship, while conceding the fewest. They are the most disciplined team in the competition and have trusted combinations across the pitch.
Their game plan has shifted in every match to date, with Schmidt adapting to suit the opposition and to exploit their weaknesses. He will undoubtedly have something up his sleeve for today.
All grounds for optimism, with even the bookies convinced, but before Paul O'Connell starts preparing his acceptance speech, there is need for a reality check.
One factor in France's favour is that each meeting of the top four teams in this year's tournament has gone the way of the hosts.
Philippe Saint-Andre is under huge pressure, while his players are feeling the heat. All week the Irish management have been concerned by what response the negativity might bring out.
The last thing they want is a wounded animal, but that looks like what's coming at them.
O'Connell and his pack have a big job to do in the opening stages. France are likely to be as pumped up as they have been for some time, so that force must be met with disciplined resistance.
For once, the visiting front-row appears to have an edge, while the Irish line-out has been impeccable to date.
"I've been really proud of them, the way that they've played in this competition," Plumtree said of his pack.
"I think each individual has grown and they understand the importance of the collective, not the individual effort. That's something that we really drive hard and that will be tested to the max on a great stage in Paris.
"So, if we can have a positive performance, then we can honestly say this pack has certainly proved its worth.
"I think the whole team has grown through the Six Nations and we can take some confidence from certain areas of our game through this competition. We haven't been perfect and there are areas that France will target us, absolutely."
By naming six forwards on their bench, Saint-Andre has put his cards on the table, a la Warren Gatland. Ireland know what's coming, the challenge is to counter it. What they will be more mindful of is protecting Johnny Sexton better than they did in London when the fly-half topped the tackle count and picked up an injury.
Back in the city he calls home, the Racing Metro man is too important to Ireland's game to be risked and taking him out of the firing line is an option. Everybody knows how tough the Lion is, but he remains Ireland's most important player.
Outside him, Ireland have the creativity to beat their opponents, but France have the edge when it comes to raw pace.
Both full-backs will have an influence, with Rob Kearney determined to seize the day and the mercurial Brice Dulin bound to be a factor if Sexton and Conor Murray invite him into the game with kicks.
The inexperience on Ireland's bench remains a concern, although Eoin Reddan's ability to up the pace will help and the front-row replacements can add dynamism, whereas France's are pure scrummagers.
Ultimately, it will come down to the tight exchanges and the visiting side's ability to dominate the tackle and stop France at source before pilfering their ball. Peter O'Mahony needs another big game to cap what has been a brilliant Six Nations for him, while Jamie Heaslip will need to carry the game to the French with ball in hand. O'Connell needs to raise his game a number of levels. If logic prevails, Ireland should win, but they will need to hit the ground running and not stop until Steve Walsh sounds the final whistle.
They must limit the referee's influence, turn the crowd against this unpopular French regime and take every chance they are presented with.
Only then will they be able to claim the spoils and send O'Driscoll off with the second title he deserves.
The head must ultimately rule, even if the heart keeps it honest.
If Ireland do it by beating France in Paris, there is no doubting they'll have deserved it.