Ireland must harness spirit of my proudest day in green
As all eyes turn to Paris, please forgive your venerable contributor a small dollop of indulgence. The cold stats speak for themselves, so let's not go there in any great depth. Putting it mildly, our record in the French capital is not good. There's been the odd moral victory built around one Brian O'Driscoll-inspired win in 38 years.
There was one other success, which for some extraordinary reason best known to the IRFU, never registered in the official cap-counting records. It came in 1988 in the course of a four-match May tour to France under then coach Jimmy Davidson.
For a myriad of reasons, most of the big guns were unavailable for that tour embracing matches in Biarritz (v a Basque regional XV), Auch (v France), Lorient (v France) and finally in La Rochelle against the French Barbarians, led by All Black World Cup-winning captain David Kirk.
Of the Five Nations first-choice XV, only Phil Danaher, Willie Anderson, Tom Clancy, Mike Gibson and Denis McBride were available to travel. No Hugo McNeill, Trevor Ringland, Brendan Mullin, Michael Kiernan, Keith Crossan, Paul Dean, Michael Bradley, Terry Kingston, Donal Lenihan or Philip Matthews.
It was, for fairly obvious reasons, deemed mission impossible. Ken Reid was tour manager to a group for whom the advance image of lambs to the slaughter undeniably came to mind. In the absence of Lenihan, Anderson was made captain and an inspirational leader he proved to be.
Despite losing in Biarritz (33-23), the Auch game in the home town of then French coach Jacques Fouroux was seen as the one to make or break the tour. It was a full international against France in all but name.
To cut a long story short, we dug deep, ran at the French, upset their rhythm and basically got in amongst them. It could be best described rugby 'du fond du coeur' -- from the heart. The match had a late Saturday evening kick-off to facilitate French TV. We led 7-6 at the break and held that narrow margin to take it 19-18 at the death.
Given the back-drop of such adversity, I can honestly say (and I know I speak on behalf of almost every other Irish squad member that day) it represented my proudest moment in a green shirt.
Reid (sadly since departed) said in his post-match summing: "I have never in my life been as proud of Irish rugby as on this occasion."
IRFU president Paddy Madigan described it as "the best performance I have ever seen from an Irish team, bearing in mind the circumstances" while for Davidson (another no longer with us) it was a case of "drawing strength from adversity".
The game has moved on and changed almost beyond recognition since then but in that fundamental respect it remains the same as ever -- drawing strength from adversity.
For the record the teams that day in a match where Neil Francis stood head and shoulders -- literally and metaphorically -- above every other, read:
Ireland -- P Danaher (Lansdowne); J Sexton (Trinity), V Cunningham (St Mary's), P Clinch (Lansdowne), P Purcell (Lansdowne); T Ward (Greystones), F Aherne (Dolphin); T Clancy (Lansdowne), S Smith (Ballymena), J McCoy (Ballymena); N Francis (Blackrock), W Anderson, (Dungannon, capt); D Whittle (Bangor), D McBride (Malone), M Gibson (London Irish). Replacement -- P O'Hara (Sunday's Well) for Whittle (45 min).
France -- JB Lafond; D Camberabero, S Blanco (capt), F Veri, P Lagisquet; F Mesnel, A Hueber; L Armary, P Marrocco, P Ondarts; A Lorieux, J Berot; M Cecillon, A Carminati, L Rodriguez.
In a similar vein, over the last few days I have witnessed at first-hand what a group of equally committed if understandably naive young boys can achieve when history and tradition tilts heavily the other way. The principle was again the same for St Gerard's, exerting pressure in every area against the competition power-house that is Blackrock.
Every 'Rock team (as Brennie Mullin constantly reminds me) has that weight of history on its shoulders. It creates an area of potential psychological vulnerability if the opposition can tap into it.
For Ireland travelling to Paris, what has happened in the past is largely irrelevant. This is a different team under a different management with a different mindset to anything that went before. The key is in the performance on the day. In planting a seed of doubt, the result then looks after itself.
Modern professionalism demands both teams to have analysed each other to the 'nth' degree. By and large, they cancel each other out; hence so much of the pre-rehearsed monotony that passes for rugby entertainment now. But when played off the cuff and, I re-emphasise, from the heart, anything and everything is possible.
Think back to Croke Park a year ago for, minus the shackles, what turned out to be the best-quality game of the championship. On the evidence of the opening games this time round it is the French in better nick.
At Murrayfield last week, they were physical, with Yannick Jauzion and Mathieu Bastareaud leading the charge in a most effective blitz defence, while the scrum all but demolished the under-strength Scottish.
One would expect the same ingredients from Marc Lievremont this afternoon, and while it would clearly cause some discomfort in the scrum, I believe the blitz defence to be vulnerable, especially in midfield.
The ability of Gordon D'Arcy and O'Driscoll to adapt is the key, but subtle changes in angle, whether on the disguised ball cutting in or on the feint and drift out, could cause Bastareaud, so effective in Edinburgh, significant problems on the turn.
There is scope, too, for the measured dink over the top, as employed by Ronan O'Gara and O'Driscoll against an Italian defence operating a similar full-court press.
The French have hit the tournament running, while we have been much slower out of the blocks. The smart money therefore is on a home win, but I believe this Irish side to be on the cusp of even greater things. Last year's Grand Slam was massive and has lifted the pressure somewhat on the more experienced members in the side. It has also provided the springboard to kick on in 'must win' games like this.
With head and heart working in tandem I believe they have it within their powers to reignite the spirit of '88.
- The Irish Exiles branch of the IRFU are hosting an 'Afternoon with the Irish Exiles' lunch on Friday, February 26, and invite rugby supporters planning to travel to London for the following day's England v Ireland match at Twickenham to attend. The luncheon is being staged at The Institute of Directors, Pall Mall, and enquiries should be made to branch treasurer Feidlim McLoughlin at firstname.lastname@example.org