Paris fear factor no longer an issue for this Ireland team
‘Shift in mentality’ and five-game unbeaten run against Les Bleus mean Schmidt’s champions have no reason to be afraid in France
The blue jersey remains the same, the stadium is right where it has been since 1998 and Paris is an enticing as ever; yet there is something different about France v Ireland in 2016.
There has been an unmistakable bullishness in the demeanour of the players this week as they prepare to face a team that has failed to beat them in five attempts and who they comprehensively outplayed on their last meeting.
They come into the second fixture of their Six Nations defence on the back of a fine performance against Wales that keeps their title hopes alive. Drawing that game has simplified the equation for Joe Schmidt’s side: another slip-up means that a historic three-in-a-row goes out the window.
Ireland are hampered by a six-day turnaround and have had limited training time this week, but they have been able to restore experienced leaders to a team that performed well last weekend and have the comfort blanket of established combinations in a host of departments that should get them through the disruption.
In their way are an unrecognisable France team that has been brought together by the old master Guy Noves, whose instincts are said to be fading.
Between them, Les Bleus have just 245 caps as compared to Ireland’s 566. Their most experienced player Yoann Maestri has yet to hit the half-century, their half-backs are both 24 and have eight caps between them, with scrum-half Sebastien Bezy one of five players winning just their second caps.
That’s a third of the starting XV whose only international experience comes from a narrow win against Italy and, while they did well to manage their way out of a sticky situation, there is a step up in class to deal with today.
Noves has gone for an exciting line-up, but the rain is due to pour in northern Paris this afternoon and that should play into the hands of the visitors, who showed last weekend that life after Paul O’Connell didn’t have to be so bad after all.
The chief concern for Schmidt will be the health of his key men after a fraught week in which a host of key players couldn’t train.
“That’s part of the reason why we did select who we selected, because there were maybe a couple of question marks over guys during the week. You have to come here with what you perceive to be the fittest squad, you can’t afford any passengers,” forwards coach Simon Easterby said yesterday.
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“There is Rob (Kearney) and Seanie (O’Brien), who have missed being up for selection for the Wales match, but we feel that we’ve given them the best preparation to come in fresh to this week and be fully fit.
“I think we’ve balanced that quite well. Players these days will carry niggles, they carry them all the time and that’s the nature of the game. But in terms of the 23 players and the guys that have travelled, everyone is fully fit. That’s been an important factor this week in terms of us not being able to finalise that selection until later in the week.”
That short turnaround appears to be the biggest concern for Schmidt, whose record against France is played three, won three.
That record is indicative of a shift in the balance of power between these sides since Ireland’s last loss to Les Bleus in Paris during the 2010 Six Nations.
That day, France won by a handsome 23 points en route to the title. A year later, they won by three in Dublin and then the teams drew in successive seasons. Schmidt’s side beat France in Paris for the first time since 2000 with a two-point win to secure the 2014 title and backed that up in Dublin a year later, winning by seven.
At last year’s World Cup, the margin had stretched to 15. That’s a 28-point swing over the course of six meetings and backs up the confident air of Ireland’s players going into this afternoon.
For Easterby, whose first taste of Paris was alongside Brian O’Driscoll on that famous day in 2000, the relationship of Ireland’s players with the City of Lights has changed.
“The success of ’09 and then the last couple of years, it’s a combination of the quality of the players. . . we went through a period of coming close to winning things but we didn’t maybe have that mentality or killer instinct that the side has maybe had over the last couple of years,” he said.
“It takes a lot to win this tournament. You saw last week how difficult it is not just to win a game, but to be physically up for a game.
“It doesn’t get any easier; guys are getting bigger, stronger, quicker, more explosive. Tactically things are changing every week so it makes much harder to win these tournaments.
“If you’re asking me about the difference between now and then, there is a difference.
“There was a period, I think it was 27 years, where we hadn’t won in Paris, up to 2000. There has been a little bit of a shift in mentality, not just against the French, but other teams we may have struggled against in the past.
“That’s credit to the players and their drive and ambition. It’s not going to make it any easier coming here, but I think there’s a confidence within the squad that if we get things right and prepare properly and prepare well, like we have done, we are going to be very, very competitive. In the past that might not have been the case.”
While this is not the French team of old, Ireland still cannot turn up off their game because Noves has picked a team packed with dangerous runners who can exploit any indecision and punish loose kicking.
With a forecast of wet and windy conditions, the presence of Johnny Sexton in the Ireland No 10 shirt will be pivotal.
Last weekend, we saw the attacking threat that the St Mary’s man offers with ball in hand but this week we may see his kicking prowess as he looks for space in and around Teddy Thomas, Virimi Vakatawa and Maxime Medard in the back-field.
Conor Murray will also have a key role in that regard, while the chasing Andrew Trimble, Rob and Dave Kearney will look to apply pressure on the retreating fliers and box them in before they can get moving.
The key to success will be in fixing the front-row issues that helped allow Wales back into the game last weekend and Nathan White will be fired up to show that his woes were a once off.
Having watched Italy thrive at the maul against a patently disorganised France last week, Ireland may look to their driving game once again while they will hope to see the same lack of enthusiasm for defensive work as was on display in Paris last week.
Yet, for all that Ireland’s recent record against France is a source of confidence, it will hardly sit well on the shoulders of those representing a proud rugby nation.
Led by the excellent Guilhem Guirado, Noves and his side have been keen to eschew talk of the past record this week as they embark on what they hope will be a new dawn.
The coach will leave it to Bezy and Jules Plisson to establish who will kick the goals after the fly-half got his scrum-half out of jail last weekend, an example of a loose approach that contrasts starkly to the detailed way Ireland do their business.
There are dangerous individuals throughout the France side, but collectively Ireland look far better put together.
If their bodies can hold up to the workload and their minds can stay tuned in for 80 minutes, they have what it takes to win and further confirm the suspicion that the relationship between these teams has changed utterly.
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