Hugh Farrelly: Kidney is known for loyalty to players but several of them need to prove this works both ways
TOP-LEVEL sport, we are constantly told, comes down to tight margins.
Ireland's performance against Wales on Sunday was far from flawless but if the last couple of minutes had panned out differently and Declan Kidney's men had held on for a one-point win rather than losing by two, things would look a lot different now.
Ireland would be heading to Paris on the balls of their feet instead of dragging their heels, and all the talk would be of "things to improve" but how they were "heading in the right direction".
Player ratings would have been bumped up, match reports would have kicked off with "sweet revenge" sentiments and there would have been talk of a second Grand Slam and a Lions job for Kidney.
However, it would be wrong to put Ireland's defeat down to a few minutes at the end of the contest or a couple of officiating howlers -- there was much more to it than that.
Ireland are a good team not playing to the best of their abilities. Coaching quite obviously plays a part in this but there is an individual responsibility on the players also.
Kidney has been very loyal to the side that came up short at the World Cup and, with the quick turnaround, need for experience in Paris and comparative lack of resources versus the French, the Ireland coach is unlikely to make wholesale changes for next weekend.
If Ireland are to achieve only their second win in Paris for 40 years, they need everyone to step up to the mark and while there were undoubtedly organisational and tactical problems exposed last Sunday, there were also established players who failed to produce.
The Ospreys man has been a locked-down certainty in the No 14 jersey since 2008/09. Colourful and personable, the Monaghan native has become something of a cult figure for supporters while establishing himself as one of Ireland's most potent attacking weapons.
However, while he took his try with customary aplomb on Sunday, it was a bad day at the office for Bowe. He looked uncertain in defence all afternoon, being badly exposed by going too high on Bradley Davies early on and then by a lack of decisiveness for Jon Davies' first try and George North's late touchdown when the Irish stood off the Welsh runners.
Bowe is a class act and needs to show it on Saturday because similar hesitancy will be disastrous against an opponent of Julien Malzieu's calibre.
The Wexford man -- one of the outstanding midfielders of his generation -- is having a decent season for Leinster and had some nice moments against Wales, notably in the lead-up to Rory Best's try.
However, with Brian O'Driscoll out of the equation, Ireland badly needed D'Arcy, the most experienced member of the backline, to step up to the plate as a leader, particularly on such a momentous afternoon for Fergus McFadden alongside him.
Instead, it was the Welsh midfield of Jamie Roberts and Jon Davies who stood out and it will not get any easier against Aurelien Rougerie and Wesley Fofana next weekend.
D'Arcy's status as figurehead in this team is accentuated by O'Driscoll's absence, and Saturday would be a good time to prove as much.
The theme at out-half over the past few seasons has been Sexton failing to see off the challenge of Ronan O'Gara. Kidney has consistently turned to the Leinster man as his first-choice 10 only for O'Gara to come back into the equation because Sexton has not made the jersey his own.
There is a theory that O'Gara's presence in the squad inhibits his rival to a degree he does not experience at provincial level and perhaps it will take the Munster man to retire before Sexton truly flourishes on the international stage. Perhaps.
Either way, that is not O'Gara's problem and Sexton, a fabulous player who at his best is a shoo-in for the Lions tour next year, needs to get over this block to progress.
Against Wales, he did some good things but lacked certainty overall. With three misses, the place-kicking issue in an Ireland shirt continues to dog him, while there was too much loose kicking out of hand that generally ended up in Welsh baskets.
Ireland have two quality out-halves but Sexton fell short of his own high standards last weekend and, if Kidney gives him another opportunity, Paris would be the perfect stage to replay that loyalty.
It is hard not to feel sympathy for the Tullow back-row who, for the second time in succession, had a rough day out against the Welsh. He stuck to his openside brief of committing to the breakdown but Wales were feral in their work on the ground, while O'Brien could never build up a head of steam when he did get his hands on the ball.
Against France, Ireland might be better advised to share out the breakdown duties, as they did against Australia in the World Cup, and allow O'Brien to drop out and run onto the ball as one of the primary carriers.
He is a central player in this team, a key rallying figure, and Ireland need to re-establish him as such.
and the man who is showing the way...
When Rory Best spoke to the media on Friday, thoughtfully dealing with Keith Earls' withdrawal from the team and accurately assessing the Welsh challenge, he oozed captaincy credentials. Magnificent at the World Cup, Best was Ireland's best player again last weekend, prominent in the loose, committed in defence and on the money out of touch.
Kidney knows how valuable the Ulster hooker is to this side, and Best is doing everything that is asked of him, and more.