Thursday 18 December 2014

Joe Schmidt's target of a strong, competitive 30-man squad for the World Cup is now attainable

Ireland's coach has shifted the balance but real challenge is on horizon, says Brendan Fanning

Published 16/03/2014 | 17:00

Brian O'Driscoll (C) and captain Paul O'Connell (C) of Ireland celebrate with their team-mates as they lift the trophy after winning the six nations championship with a 22-20 victory over France
Brian O'Driscoll (C) and captain Paul O'Connell (C) of Ireland celebrate with their team-mates as they lift the trophy after winning the six nations championship with a 22-20 victory over France

In the celebrations that followed the final whistle in Stade de France yesterday, we were reminded of a different scene, a long time ago.

It was in the run-up to kick-off in the France versus Ireland Championship match in Parc des Princes in 1992, and a French colleague was folding his copy of L'équipe, sorting out his bits and pieces in the press box. The headline on the front page of the paper was still clearly visible as he was shuffling things around his desk. Le massacre du printemps. Bear in mind this was a preview, not a report. And fairly accurate as it turned out. It was springtime in Paris, and you didn't need to be in the crystal ball business to know the away team would be put to the sword.

Things have calmed down now, but in the 1970s and '80s we became accustomed to the sight of French forwards bursting, bull-like, onto the field, seemingly plugged into a turbo-charged power source. Some 20 years later, former France scrumhalf Pierre Berbizier indicated that performance-enhancing substances were an issue in the game in that country. Naturally enough, he was near-buried for suggesting as much.

When Dr Jean Pierre de Mondenard, author of several books on drugs in sport, said that a former Five Nations player had told him that some players had been given the stimulant Captagon before games, having been told it was a vitamin, it joined some of the dots for us.

According to Dr De Mondenard, another French player told him that the use of stimulants was commonplace in the '70s and '80s. It's hard to forget how the sound used to whip around the Parc, ratcheting up in volume with every French pass, reaching a crescendo when another home try would be run in. The bands would strike up and Ireland would be too shattered to name the tune.

Our lot weren't so much pushing a heavy rock uphill as trying to get out from under one. Discovering that the playing pitch had not been level salved the wounds to some extent of never having won in that stadium. It didn't get around the fact though that for most of that era the French were simply better.

We went to Paris yesterday looking for confirmation that the balance had shifted. That it came, gift-wrapped under extreme pressure at the last minute, in a Championship title, colours in some of the background for the bigger picture going to the World Cup in England next year. But what a struggle to get to this point.

For the first five years of the professional game our provinces suffered as our national side had done. Then in the Heineken Cup in 1999/2000 Munster saw off Colomiers home and away, Stade Francais in the quarter-final, and topped the sequence off by beating Toulouse under a boiling-hot sun in Bordeaux. Gradually thereafter the ground shifted to the point where in the Heineken Cup we now expect our teams to be fitter, and, more often than not, to win against French opposition.

This hasn't happened overnight. Munster's record is, despite a slow start, remarkable: of the 10 French clubs they have played over the 17-and-a-half years of the competition, they are level in three of the head-to-heads – Clermont, Biarritz and Toulouse – and ahead in all the rest. Against Castres, for example, they have won nine of 12 ties. Leinster were more sluggish in sorting themselves out, but have done so emphatically. They have played 12 French clubs over the same period and trail only to Perpignan, Stade Francais and Toulouse.

Only in the last two seasons however has that movement forward reached up to Test level. Our back-to-back draws with France over the last two meetings has been our best sequence in the fixture since the consecutive wins of 2000 and 2001. And before that we had lost a staggering 15 times on the trot.

Yet this weekend was the first time in living memory that regular watchers of Ireland and France were backing a happy ending for the away team in Paris. There were three reasons for this: the awfulness of France until yesterday under coach Philippe Saint-André; the arrival of Joe Schmidt as Ireland coach; and the fact that Schmidt had at his disposal a crop of players good enough to win a Championship if pointed in the right direction.

The France factor you suspect is part cultural and part structure – the latter being influenced by a national league where the clubs have no interest beyond themselves, and promptly stuff it with players unavailable to France. That won't change ahead of us meeting in the Millennium Stadium in the deciding game of Pool D in next year's World Cup.

The Schmidt factor is of more interest to us than France's problems. Before the season even started, he had hoped that he would be in a system run by a new performance director, an appointment central to Ireland's ambition of being a top-ranked rugby nation. What was turning into a long trawl pulling up empty nets looks, at last, like landing something. Former Australian high performance director David Nucifora is expected to take up the position on June 1.

Long before then – perhaps in the next few weeks – the future of European rugby will have been secured also, with Sky and BT Vision reaching a compromise on the broadcast arrangements for the successor to the Heineken Cup. So if you know what the landscape looks like, and you have the pieces of the jigsaw in place off the pitch, it optimises your chances of getting the most of what you have on the pitch. And what's out there is good in spots, and a bit bare elsewhere.

At the 2007 World Cup, Eddie O'Sullivan's window opened onto the rosiest garden in the history of the game in this country. Or so we thought at the time. For sure his starting XV was stuffed with talent, but his bench was no springboard for the stars. And beyond that was a group he considered using only in extremis. You can criticise him for not giving them game-time on the long road to France but this was because he didn't think they were good enough, and the system didn't offer alternatives.

Four years later, Declan Kidney had every bit as good a starting crew, and a significantly better bench with the luxury of having two top-class 10s in Ronan O'Gara and Johnny Sexton scrapping it out.

Roll on towards 2015 and while Schmidt is losing the nation's best-ever in Brian O'Driscoll, his target of going to the show with a 30-man squad capable of beating each other up over starting places is visible and attainable.

To that end it was disappointing that he didn't come close to his pre-tournament estimate that he would use circa 21/23 players as starters over the five games, instead settling for 18. Maybe he was dazzled by the bright lights of the Championship and left well enough alone.

Instead the shuffling was done on the bench, where the back row was enhanced by contributions from Tommy O'Donnell, Jordi Murphy, Iain Henderson and Rhys Ruddock.

So Schmidt has 14 Tests in which to develop further a game which has come along nicely since he took over last year, and to fill out his 30-man World Cup squad with players who are interchangeable. That process will ramp up a bit in Argentina in June, and continue in November. If he wants to get the most out of it then he will leave Sexton at home to rest, and crack on with Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan.

Ulster's Jared Payne won't be available at that stage so filling O'Driscoll's shirt will be a choice between Robbie Henshaw, Luke Fitzgerald and Tommy Bowe. Henshaw clearly is ahead, but if Fitzgerald gets time there for Leinster he could make a case, while Tommy Bowe has the experience, class and physique to do the job. And it's not as if we are short of wingers, so he could be spared.

Backing up or replacing Gordon D'Arcy is almost as pressing an issue – and will remain so until Luke Marshall proves his recovery from ongoing concussions. Stuart Olding, currently rehabbing an ACL tear, is a real talent who might well fill the gap.

In the pack, the flashing light is over tighthead. Marty Moore's emergence this season has been perfectly timed and you'd wonder where our scrummaging would be without him coming off the bench and keeping his end up. Currently there are names, but no contenders. By a distance that is the biggest item on Schmidt's to-do list.

Having put a pause on Ireland's recurring nightmares in Paris, and scooped up a Championship title in the process, the coach will want to break new ground at the World Cup. It will be interesting to see how L'équipe headline that one.

Brendan Fanning

Sunday Indo Sport

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