Irish Need perfect mix to sink France
Published 13/02/2010 | 09:00
WATERLOO, 1815, and the Duke of Wellington is asleep under a tree with a copy of the ‘London Times’ covering his face. The continent-changing battle with Napoleon is looming and Wellington’s staff are slightly concerned by their leader’s obvious nonchalance.
The general’s second-in-command, Lord Uxbridge, sidles over, and tentatively taps the duke on the shoulder.
“Ahem, excuse me sir.”
Wellington awakes from his reverie. “Ah, Uxbridge…what is it?”
“As I am second-in-command, in case anything should happen to you sir, what are your plans?”
“ To beat the French,” replies Wellington and goes back to sleep. Wellington may be revered as one of Britain’s greatest military heroes after overseeing that famous victory, but similarities can, nonetheless, be drawn with Ireland’s most successful sporting general, Declan Kidney; beginning with that ultimate motivation of beating the French at the Stade de France, where battle will commence at 4.30 (Irish time) this afternoon.
Victory today does not just carry the immediate imperative of furthering Ireland’s Six Nations ambitions, it is of massive psychological significance as Kidney marches his troops towards next year’s World Cup in New Zealand.
England had similar objectives in the run-up to the 2003 tournament; to build confidence for the ultimate challenge by winning in Paris and in the southern hemisphere – which Kidney will attempt in Australia and New Zealand this summer.
There will not be another chance in Paris before the World Cup and, for players such as John Hayes, Ronan O’Gara and David Wallace, this is possibly the last opportunity.
Victory today provides huge mental surety, while defeat creates doubts and shatters the veneer of impregnability that has built up around this squad over the course of their 12- match, 14-month unbeaten run. Further symmetry between the two generals stems from the fact that Wellington was Irish – born in what is now the Merrion Hotel in Dublin – although he was not proud of his roots, famously pointing out that “being born in a stable, does not make you a horse.”
Wellington won in Waterloo for many reasons, but the turning point was Napoleon’s cavalry foundering on the indomitability of British ‘squares’ and, if Kidney is to mastermind Ireland to only their second victory in Paris in 38 years, it will depend to a large degree on Les Kiss’s defensive system standing up to the inevitable wave of French attacks.
Kiss produced the most miserly defence in last year’s Six Nations, an essential component in Ireland’s Grand slam surge, although the Australian will remember how French brilliance cut through the Irish rearguard open on two occasions in Croke Park last year.
Much has been made of leviathan centre Mathieu Bastareaud’s two tries against Scotland, but Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy have seen it all before and Ireland’s captain – who laid out the 19-stone Springbok Danie Roussouw on the Lions tour – was never going to be intimidated by a lumpen, over-hyped 21-year-old.
“The days of being frightened are well and truly behind me,” said O’Driscoll when asked about Bastareaud yesterday. “You’re always wary of who you play against and understand their certain skill set, but (you) also realise you bring your own skill set.” More relevant is the threat posed by Vincent Clerc out wide. The statistic of his seven tries from five outings against Ireland has been well flagged and it is remarkable to think that one of the sharpest wingers in world rugby was not first choice heading into the tournament.
Rob Kearney did not enjoy his finest outing last weekend, with his kicking attracting the greatest criticism, most notably for Kaine Robertson’s try. However, on that occasion, the fullback was scuppered once Andrew Trimble allowed the ball to bounce and Kearney made worthy overall contributions in attack and under the high ball.
Nonetheless, the criticism will have stung and you would put a hefty wager on a monumental response this evening from a player of worldclass quality, starting with his security at the back.
Stephen Ferris’s return to the side is massively important from a defensive aspect also, while, at scrum-half, Tomas O’Leary will have a watching brief on the avenues around the side of scrum and maul which a mobile and aggressive French back-row will undoubtedly explore.
Another area where Ireland will need to plant their flag firmly is the set-pieces. The line-out has excelled in their last two outings against South Africa and Italy and Leo Cullen and Paul O’Connell look to have an athletic edge over their barrel-chested second-row counterparts; but Imanol Harindordoquy must be carefully policed, as must Julien Bonnaire when he appears off the bench.
Once again, the engagements at scrum-time will be crucial. The Irish fared extremely well against a highly rated Italian unit, but the French present a different, and more intense, challenge.
All the power is channelled down the middle of the scrum and Irish hooker Jerry Flannery will be targeted in a manner reminiscent of the French sides of the early 1980s, who selected three props in their front-row and opted for the eightman shove on their own put-in as well as the opposition’s, deigning to even strike for the ball.
It is a big ask for the Irish scrum, but, just as against Italy, forwards coach Gert Smal will have done his homework.
Once Ireland have possession, outhalf Ronan O’Gara will test the fielding capacity of France’s back three,where Tommy Bowe’s height gives him a distinct advantage. And there will be kicks for territory, particularly early on when Ireland will be at pains to prevent France getting off to the flier that has been critical on the last four Six Nations visits to the French capital. Back-line moves were at a premium against Italy, but we can expect some offensive manoeuvres today, which the French will not have had an opportunity to properly study, incorporating a more prominent display from Bowe through the middle.
Which is where O’Driscoll and D’Arcy can do damage also, for, while Yannick Jauzion and Bastareaud carry a pronounced weight advantage, Ireland’s duo unquestionably have the greater powers of evasion.
Other critical factors are referee Wayne Barnes and his interpretation of the scrum and breakdown and the power of the French bench, which includes the game-changing potential of Sylvain Marconnet, Freddie Michalak, Julien Malzieu and Bonnaire.
Then there is the self-belief and confidence France derive from playing in front of their home support and the knowledge that Ireland’s Paris record is dismal. Ireland need to turn French cheers to whistles by getting off to a strong start and then draw on all their reserves to see it through to the end.
It is a massive ask by any stretch, but Kidney’s career is marked by notable victories against the odds. It is founded on exhaustive preparation, but also a Midas touch, as evidenced by the unforgettable Grand Slam-securing end-game in Cardiff last year.
France go in as warm favourites, just as they did when Wellington sent them packing 195 years ago. But, in terms of Kidney’s capacity to upset the odds today, perhaps it is the words of Wellington’s vanquished foe that are most relevant.
When asked if he preferred courageous generals or brilliant generals, Napoleon replied he preferred “lucky generals.” Courage, brilliance and luck; it’s a powerful combination.