Video Hugh Farrelly: Crunch clash for wounded Irish
Test futures on the line as Kidney's side look to banish Welsh gloom in Paris
Published 11/02/2012 | 05:00
THE sense of tension was palpable in Paris yesterday.
Ordinarily, pre-match press conferences on the eve of Six Nations matches are relaxed affairs, a gentle rehash of aspirations expressed during the week, garnished with copious amounts of praise and respect for the opposition.
Yesterday, at the Ireland team hotel near the Arc du Triomphe, on a bitterly cold afternoon in the French capital, the mood was as frosty as the pavements outside.
It stems from a bitter resolve to answer their detractors (who now include the IRB) and produce a worthy response to last weekend's disappointment and acknowledged injustice.
The Stephen Ferris citing controversy may now be centred around differing opinions on whether or not Wales's resultant winning penalty was, in fact, a penalty, but, whatever way you look at it, the incident was hugely detrimental and disruptive to Ireland's Six Nations campaign and World Cup seeding.
There is also the sense of 'no tomorrow' as a heavy defeat this evening, as many are predicting, would surely make change inevitable. Declan Kidney has stuck doggedly to the players who, ultimately, failed at the World Cup and who then, regardless of the yellow card controversies, lost a game they should have won last weekend.
If Ireland's best come up short again, maybe it is time to look somewhere else.
Frustration is compounded by the fact that Heineken Cup achievement (three provinces in the knock-out stages this season, five titles) is not translating to the international stage while Wales, a nation of persistent underachievement in Europe (one quarter-finalist this season, no titles), are inspired by national combat.
Kidney pointed this week to the considerable step-up in standards between the provincial and international competitions, as well as the disparity in preparation time, but Wales have managed to bridge those divides, why can't Ireland?
So, the talent is there, the motivation is certainly there and bitterness is underpinning everything else -- will it be enough?
You suspect the French do not think so. All the talk over here has been of a struggling Irish side ripe for the plucking against a home outfit who, with a steady hand on the tiller in Philippe Saint-Andre after the erratic navigation of Marc Lievremont, are ready to expand on their best moments from last weekend's routine win over the Italians.
The French do not expect to lose to the Irish -- certainly not at the Stade de France -- and one way to measure Gallic confidence is to ask how many Irish players they would consider for their own team.
The French respect Cian Healy, who would have to be considered for Jean-Baptiste Poux's loose-head slot and Rory Best would surely get a shot at hooker ahead of Dimitri Szarzewski (although the revered William Servat would be the unanimous French choice ahead of either).
Paul O'Connell could get into the second-row, but the French are salivating about the potential of Yoann Maestri and, after that, you suspect they would stick with their own back-row, half-backs, centres and wingers -- leaving a toss-up between Rob Kearney and Maxime Medard at full-back.
That level of superiority tells its own story, as does the fact that France's talent was sufficient to bring them all the way to a World Cup final they deserved to win -- despite a chaotic campaign where the players ended up essentially coaching themselves.
On that basis, it could get very ugly tonight, particularly if France get their dander up early on and kill off the game before the Irish have found their feet -- a recurring theme on trips to Paris.
"In lots of conversations, I hear that come up," acknowledged assistant coach Les Kiss. "I wouldn't be panicking if they went three or six points up, but we definitely need to start well and apply pressure on our own terms. If it's 0-0 after 20 minutes and we are applying pressure, we know where we can go. Any time you are loose they can punish you."
No doubt about that and Kiss highlighted France's back three as an area of particular strength -- especially in light of Ireland's loose kicking out of hand last weekend.
"The back three will cause us a bit of grief if we don't have our chase lines right. Julien Malzieu is a very adept player. He's been out of the scene for a while, but was on fire against Italy last weekend.
"France are a team that thrive on anything given to them in a loose fashion. It's vital that we squeeze the space their back three thrives on."
So, a pretty daunting scenario all round. However, there is a positive spin from an Irish point of view.
Unlike the amateur days of the 1980s and 1990s when Irish players admitted to "being beaten before we got on the plane," this group know they have it in them to beat France.
The air of mystery surrounding French rugby has long since evaporated, courtesy of the Heineken Cup.
Repeated exposure has provided clues to French frailties and, while that does not preclude the home side running amok, it reduces the fear factor that used to dominate everything else.
Furthermore, Kidney teams do not do two bad defeats in a row (we can exclude meaningless World Cup warm-up matches here) and it is not unreasonable to expect a pronounced improvement on last week.
It will require parity at the set-pieces and at the breakdown, accurate kicking (out of hand and off the tee), greater intensity at the breakdown, increased line-speed in defence, more variation in attack and a low penalty count.
Admittedly, we are in Life of Brian territory here -- "All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us? -- but it feels like there is a big performance coming.
In fact, it feels a lot like it felt in Auckland before the showdown with Australia last September.
The same dire need for a performance, the same widespread dismissal of Ireland's chances, the same easy complacency among their opponents and the same waves of doubt and criticism washing over the squad ... the same tension.
The difference is that there is an even greater sense of frustration and bitterness ahead of this game. It may not be enough to propel them to victory, but it should get them close.
Verdict: Big Ireland performance, France win.
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