Kidney wary of French shock tactics as Ireland plan for Paris roller-coaster
THE fear of the unexpected can be a powerful motivator.
Perks Fun Fair used to decamp every Easter to the 'Boggy' in Cork and, along with the (relatively) big wheel, the star attraction was, unquestionably, the ghost train. The tacky plastic skeletons that lit up unexpectedly and the soundtrack emitting a continuing stream of evil noises were no big deal, the thrill came when you turned the final corner and hit the home stretch.
It was at this point that the two-seater train slowed down and, in the pitch darkness, a human hand would suddenly ruffle your hair or brush across your face. Some carny was actually paid to feel up punters in the dark as they trundled by, shocking in every sense, and, perhaps, the most terrifying aspect was not knowing where the carny's hands had been.
No one does shock like the French in Paris and Ireland have been touched up badly on their last four trips to the Stade de France.
This week, they are preparing for the unexpected and it's creating a delicious fear which adds to the overall anticipation ahead of what should be the pivotal clash of this year's Six Nations, with Ireland coach Declan Kidney citing France's unpredictability as their greatest strength.
"I wouldn't classify it as 'new' but I think it's the unexpected ... but that would be traditional too," said Kidney. "Last year, they lost a game and then Toulouse were playing Clermont on a Sunday night and they came out on Friday night against Wales five days later with a totally different defensive system, and that managed to scupper Wales early on.
"That's what they can do, they can do the unexpected. The boys will really have to think on their feet out there. We pay due diligence to all the teams we play but with France you don't know," added Kidney.
"You can have all those plans and then if they announce on Thursday and it's something different that could upset it. When you have that array of players, you can come up with any XV."
If the French trade successfully on their capriciousness, Ireland's strengths are their winning mentality (driven by an unbeaten run stretching back 12 matches) and their experience, with Kidney able to name a team containing three players with more than 90 caps and seven more with at least 20 internationals under their belts, including Paul O'Connell (66), David Wallace (58) and Gordon D'Arcy (44).
Stephen Ferris has only 16 caps to his name, but his uber-physical style is perfectly tailored for Paris and the Ulster flanker has been given a few more days to prove his fitness with Kevin McLaughlin ready to step up if that bid fails.
"Kevin went well the last day, too, and he's being patient here for the good of the team," said Kidney. "It always takes a little bit of generosity of spirit of guys to feed into that type of ethic. We'll make it as quick as we can but sometimes you don't make a decision until you have to."
As expected, Ronan O'Gara held on in the key out-half position despite Jonathan Sexton being in the mix again after missing the opening win over Italy and, given O'Gara's experience and recent displays for Munster and for Ireland last weekend, this was the logical selection.
"Ronan had a very good game the last day, so from that point there was no reason not to play him again this week. Jonathan is making a good recovery but we're in the lucky position of having two very good out-halves, and with Ronan's experience I think that will be more than helpful when we go to Paris."
With Donncha O'Callaghan ruled out once again with his leg injury, Leo Cullen was the natural pick alongside O'Connell in the second row and will be looking to build on his excellent display against Italy.
Andrew Trimble's hamstring is being monitored, but Kidney revealed that he intended to start Keith Earls on the left wing against France in any case, while praising Trimble's contribution last weekend.
"Keith went very well against South Africa and he didn't do anything wrong in December or January, so I explained to him that I wanted to give Andrew a go to see how he went last week. I thought Andrew went well, but Keith hadn't done anything wrong so I just believe he deserves his go here now."
This is a team equipped to secure Ireland's first victory in Paris in 10 years and one with the nous and all-round ability to cope with France -- whatever they produce. Furthermore, while Ireland's attacking play was somewhat stilted in their functional opening encounter, the Grand Slam champions are ready to unleash some surprises of their own come Saturday.
"We have a few things that we've talked about, depending on what they show us, but it's important we keep those to ourselves," said Kidney.
It promises to be a thrilling ride.