Kidney hopes are pinned on series of 'ifs'
KEITH WOOD had a philosophy when it came to playing the French. He said you knew what way it was going to go after 20 minutes.
Wood was one of the bravest men to pull on the green jersey, and a player who was defined by both a winning attitude and unswerving commitment.
Yet, the former Ireland hooker used to say that, when the French were in the mood, Ireland's goose could be (exquisitely) cooked after a mere 20 minutes in the oven.
He should know. Between 1997 and 2003, the Garryowen man faced France seven times. Two of those encounters, in 2000 and 2001, resulted in Irish victories, while in 1997, '98 and '99 (when Wood played Braveheart-style covered in blue dye from a runny pitch advert) Ireland also cleared the 20-minute barrier and ran the French close.
However, for 2002 in Paris and the 2003 World Cup quarter-final clash in Australia, Ireland were out of it early and it was sad that Wood's great career should end on that sour note in Melbourne. Ireland were 27-0 down by half-time and though they battled back to 43-21, Eddie O'Sullivan's talk of winning the second half rang very hollow afterwards.
Ken O'Connell made his only start for Ireland against France in 1994, out of position on the open-side flank. The Sunday's Well forward was a player of ferocious passion and the story goes that he told his team-mates beforehand that he "would die for them" that day.
Unfortunately, that commitment to the cause was not a communal one and Ireland were run out the gate.
Then there was former Ireland captain Terry Kingston, a man who faced down the haka and a rampaging Jonah Lomu at the 1995 World Cup, but made no bones about labelling the French in full flow as the most terrifying sight in rugby.
Ireland have moved on since those days. Regular triumphs over French club sides in Europe, not least this season, have lessened the fear factor, but France arrive in Dublin for Sunday's Six Nations clash at Lansdowne Road carrying that old air of menace and desire to dish out a hammering.
They did it to Ireland last year. Declan Kidney's side knocked on the kick-off, were 17-3 down at half-time and, by the time Wayne Barnes blew the final whistle, had been stuffed 33-10. Given that Ireland went into the game as Grand Slam champions, carrying an unbeaten record that stretched back 12 matches to 2008, it was a severe shock to the system -- the French can have that effect on you.
For Ireland to upset the odds on Sunday, they need to raise their performance by at least 40pc, while it would help considerably if France were below par. We are into Kipling territory here again, for this is a match riddled with 'ifs'.
Ireland can triumph ...
If France show the mental frailty they displayed in their November hammering by Australia.
If, as Ronan O'Gara says elsewhere in these pages, Ireland go at the French and adapt to situations by playing what is in front of them, rather than sticking rigidly to a pre-determined game-plan. France missed 25 tackles in their win over Scotland, so the right Irish approach can locate and exploit gaps.
If Kidney's men can match them in the scrum. This is not simply Mike Ross coping with Thomas Domingo, as he did for Leinster v Clermont in December, or Cian Healy managing Nicolas Mas, it requires a unified effort from all eight and the back-row, as ex-Ireland loose-head Reggie Corrigan put it, "working their asses off".
If Ireland can engineer quality possession from the back of the line-out. Jamie Heaslip's return will help in this regard, but he is still not as lofty as the French back-row jumpers Imanol Harinordoquy and Julien Bonnaire.
It requires careful planning to get the best attacking ball off the top and forwards coach Gert Smal will have earned his corn this week if Ireland manage it.
So many ifs and so little certainty does not breed the confidence that Ireland have lacked for some time now, but Sunday would be a good day to produce.
Even with the injury problems, the talent is there and the experience of last weekend's escape to victory in Rome will stand to these players -- the reason Kidney has stuck by them.
Another heavy defeat to France and, suddenly, we are veering dangerously close to 'rip it up and start again' territory. That cannot be allowed to happen as the World Cup looms ever closer.
After 20 minutes we will know what kind of day it is going to be. France are exceedingly good, Ireland must be better.