George Hook: Expect the unexpected – shambolic French will raise game to spoil party
Published 15/03/2014 | 02:30
Fear of the unknown is a brutal inhibitor. There is nothing more terrifying than a well-armed opponent capable of the sublime but thus far shackled by disorder.
To a man, France are suitably equipped for victory in Paris this afternoon, but under Philippe Saint-Andre they could be a shell of a team, lacking in confidence and devoid of direction.
For rugby purists, it has been upsetting to watch. This crop of French players has dishonoured the traditions of the famous blue jersey and trodden on the exciting values of their predecessors with shameless impunity.
They seem to care little for their mistakes and have so far refused to even acknowledge their poor form. The coach is hopeless, yet still France are dangerous.
France have shown tiny glimpses of what they are capable of, but mostly they have flattered to deceive. England left Paris after round one grinding their teeth at a victory that was cruelly wrestled from their grasp.
Italy, too, dominated large portions of the game in the French capital before a brutal 10-minute spell left them dead on their feet. Scotland must still be wondering how they managed to lose in Murrayfield last Saturday.
Now France have nowhere to hide. Ireland will come with a battle plan, but the scope of Joe Schmidt's control over his team has ironically been limited by the maddening inconsistency of the French.
How can the Ireland coach plan for a team that has so far played with no discernible strategy? France, through their ineptitude, have unwittingly disarmed Ireland's greatest weapon.
Schmidt must know this. The New Zealander admitted to feeling nervous this week and the reasons for his anxiety are easy to understand. How can he ready his squad for a team that is as likely to go left as right?
Predicting what France will do is impossible and every team that has tried to work them out thus far has failed. It may be a cliche, but the only certainty as far as France is concerned is the promise of uncertainty.
Control is key to victory. Ireland's disciplinary record thus far has been exemplary but the Parisian crowd will test that discipline to the full.
A delicate cocktail of intensity, aggression and calmness under pressure will help to swing decisions in Ireland's favour, while an early strike against the grain should silence the fickle crowd.
Mentally France are extremely vulnerable. There are no leaders on or off the pitch and the replacement captain for Thierry Dusautoir has gone from bad to worse as the tournament has progressed.
Pascal Pape's petulant display towards young wing Hugo Bonneval at the Millennium Stadium was as incredulous as it was childish.
Pape threw a forward pass along the ground to a player making just his second Test appearance, but rather than apologise to his winger he shouted and roared like a spoilt brat. The second-row's outburst typified the lazy attitude in the French camp.
That attitude stems from the top down. Saint-Andre's appointment as successor to Marc Lievremont always seemed bizarre, but the more he stays in charge, the more foolish his selection appears.
This is a coach with no game plan. Some of his selection decisions over the last two years have baffled even the most loyal French rugby fans.
Yet, as we know from history, Saint-Andre will not be fired.
This afternoon, Ireland must seize their chance. One win in Paris in 42 years is a shocking record, but this bunch of players has everything in their favour to begin reversing that statistic.
They have form, experience, tactical knowhow and the carrot of a championship on their side.
Against that, the opposition is relying on the natural ability of their players to come together for this fixture and banish the criticism that has so far dogged their campaign.
France's strike runners must be snuffed out. Peter O'Mahony faces arguably his toughest opponent in Toulouse bulldozer Louis Picamoles. In Cardiff, Wales showed how Picamoles can be stopped and, like most of his team-mates, if he is hit hard and often, his head will disappear.
Before this tournament started, I highlighted Gael Fickou as a superstar of the future. Incredibly the 19-year-old has been given no chance to shine, despite four inept performances by the human barrel Mathieu Bastareaud.
By default and because of an injury to Wesley Fofana, Fickou is handed his first Six Nations start today. He is lightning quick and very strong but he is also young and inexperienced. Ireland must not allow him time to settle.
Despite all their manifold deficiencies, France are at home and will perform in front of their own crowd.
The French Top 14 has shown how even mighty Clermont, Toulon and Toulouse are imperious at home and vulnerable away.
Finally, at the fifth time of asking, the coach has got the selection almost right. His half-backs and back-row will be better and the pace of his back three will trouble Ireland.
The last World Cup gave an insight in to the psyche of the French rugby player. Beaten by Tonga, they still succeeded in reaching the final and, but for callow refereeing, would have beaten New Zealand in Auckland.
In dismissing Les Bleus we are in danger of ascribing to them the qualities of English-speaking countries.
They do things differently and this championship is the better for it. They will defy our predictions and spoil the big farewell.