Tainton: ‘These are the best players we have’
THERE was a touch of the 'Auckland blues' swirling around the Irish camp yesterday and, considering the size of the task facing them in Paris this weekend, that is no bad thing.
Five months ago in New Zealand, Ireland were gearing up to take on Tri-Nations champions Australia in their World Cup pool game with a torrid run-in, widespread criticism and opposition complacency fostering the type of siege mentality and frustration-driven determination which seems to best suit the Irish sporting psyche.
The Wallabies felt the brunt of it last September and while it requires a huge leap of faith to forecast the same fate befalling the French on Saturday night, there are definite similarities between the two lead-in scenarios.
France feel comfortable enough to make four changes to the team that breezed past Italy last weekend and, having only been upended once in 40 years by the Irish in Paris, it is clear they cannot foresee any chance of an upset in a match where they go in as 1/5 favourites.
Meanwhile, Ireland have plenty of frustration and bitterness to draw upon following an infuriating third defeat on the bounce to Wales -- the officiating inconsistencies that contributed directly to that result, the citing of Stephen Ferris as well as defensive and offensive failings undoing some productive work have all combined to provide a definite edge for the trip to France.
Is that enough to get Ireland's Six Nations campaign back on track? Logic would decree that it is not, but it certainly provides a focus and intense desire to let it all out on Saturday.
It is generally accepted there will be no overhaul in selection or radical alteration in game-plan, but rather, as assistant coach Mark Tainton confirmed yesterday, it is a case of getting the existing players to raise their game.
"We're happy with what we've got and we'll take that forward," said Tainton. "We will change certain things on the field; we're playing France and they'll bring a different threat.
"But we are not going to have knee-jerk reactions. We've worked with the squad now for the last few weeks and we're confident we have the best players in the camp."
Against Wales, the Irish defensive line failed to close down the powerful Welsh backs and Tainton conceded that line speed was an issue heading to Paris to face the French, who have big men of their own
"We've all seen the game and our line speed could have been quicker closer to the breakdown, allowing our outside backs or forwards to come up and jam quicker," said Tainton.
"It is not just our defence, when we get the ball we need to use it properly, play in the right areas of the pitch and when we keep the ball, keep it for more phases to try and put more pressure on the opposition.
"There were some very good situations in attack and there are some things we can improve on. I was very pleased with the two tries, we maintained our depth in the wide channels and we played with a little bit of patience.
"We stretched the Welsh defence a couple of times and the two opportunities we had, we took," he added.
"We spent a long time yesterday as coaches reviewing the game and we have just sat down with the players and did our review session. There are things we brought up that can strengthen our defence and the players have bought into that and they are going to take ownership of it.
"Obviously, it's something we'll be working at for the rest of the week."
Another facet of Ireland's game that came up short on occasion last Sunday was kicking out of hand, both in terms of box kicking and kicking for position, and Tainton, as kicking overseer, said this was an area that would receive concerted attention this week.
"We played a lot of rugby in our own half in the first half and we spoke about how, while it is great to keep ball in hand, there are times when we need to relieve pressure. When our line-out was going as well as it was against Wales, perhaps we could have played a little bit more field position in those areas -- whether that is finding grass and going for touch or putting up contestables (high kicks).
"At the start of the game, they kicked off and we did the basics very well; Conor (Murray) put up a superb box kick, Tommy (Bowe) chased it well and we won the penalty.
"There were times when we were deep in our half and we may have gone one or two phases too much, when we could have actually relieved the pressure a little bit earlier and kicked on our terms. It is something we have looked at and will work on.
"We only really have two sessions to prepare for France, so our structures are not going to change massively, we just need to be more accurate in what we do."
Much has been made of the six-day turnaround, which can be viewed one of two ways: it either sends Ireland staggering into Paris off-balance, demoralised and ripe for a Gallic gutting, or, and this is very much the glass half-full perspective, it gets the players back on the pitch desperate to exorcise their frustrations as quickly as possible.
Tainton spoke well yesterday, acknowledging the areas in need of attention, but refusing to indulge any question of panic at the monumental challenge ahead.
Again, that was reminiscent of the measured words that characterised Ireland's build-up to the Australia game in Auckland, with that burning desire to do themselves justice bubbling underneath.
Ireland's best performances in the past 12 months have come in this backs-to-the-wall scenario, but you wonder how many times they can go back to this particular well. We will find out on Saturday.