Tuesday 27 September 2016

Tony Ward: We could well be on the brink of a new era in Irish rugby

Published 13/02/2016 | 02:30

Conor Murray scores Ireland's only try against Wales
Conor Murray scores Ireland's only try against Wales

Familiarity has bred confidence in Irish teams travelling to France. Professionalism has undoubtedly helped level the playing field - prior to that back in Five Nations time the biennial hiding in Paris was part and parcel of the Irish rugby cycle and we accepted it as such.

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We tried to operate on the principle that ignorance was bliss yet travelled in fear of giving away cheap possession through reckless kicking or careless handling. You invited a French back -- any French back - into a gap and he was gone in a blink. That was the French way and nobody but nobody did it better.

Now it is New Zealand and Australia leading the counter-attacking revolution, but the original trail-blazers under new coach Guy Noves are hinting at a return to the Gallic ways of old. There were definite signs against the Italians - despite the tightness of the result - that this young French side has designs on going back to the future.

From an Irish perspective, despite waving goodbye to two of the three titles on offer - Triple Crown and Grand Slam - last week's draw with Wales was a welcome result.

We were on the rack for numerous reasons, but the individual and collective response was uplifting. We could have beaten the Welsh and, with that 13-point lead, perhaps should have, but given the context this was a result that may well have kick-started a new era for Irish rugby.

We are now minus the two players generally recognised as the two greatest of this or any other era in Irish rugby.

This trip to the Stade de France is vital in so many ways. It is vital we build on the confidence and with it the momentum that should flow from last week's result.

It is vital we impose ourselves today in exactly the same way as we did from the off in the Aviva six days ago.

It is vital we build on a pattern of play slightly removed from what we have witnessed from this group over the last two Six Nations campaigns.

There was no sea change in modus operandi against the Welsh but there was a little more sensible off-loading, and a far less slavish adherence to kick and chase.

As I have said many times before, we are not looking to reinvent the wheel but what we are looking to do is to develop a varied style of play more appropriate to the modern game as exemplified by the Rugby Championship teams at the World Cup.

It's not as if shifting the ball in or before the tackle or changing the point of the attack is alien to Irish rugby.

Look at Connacht and what can be achieved with far more limited resources. I admire Schmidt for what we witnessed last Sunday.

It was the clearest hint that the coach has learnt the lessons of the World Cup and is prepared to adapt, albeit through sensible small steps. We buy that.

The French, by contrast, appeared to be taking a much greater leap of faith and almost lost out in the process.

I can't believe I'm saying this but we haven't lost in Paris since 2010. A win today and it's four in a row against the French.

And on last week's reassuring evidence, I believe we can do it.

French rugby is still paying the price for club success. That might appear a contradiction, but it is clear that the development of indigenous talent is suffering at the altar of oversea investment.

And if anyone doubts the difference the influence of a new coach makes then compare the 23 named by Noves in midweek with the French squad beaten comprehensively by Ireland back in October in Cardiff.

Just five (the front-row of Rabah Slimani, new captain Guilhem Guirado and Eddy Ben Arous, plus lock Yoann Maestri and No 8 Damien Chouly) are still in the match-day squad, with just three of that quintet starting.

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Not a single back of the 10 used by Philippe Saint Andre when last the sides met is called on by Noves (pictured above) again now. That is some turnover in barely four months.

By contrast Schmidt has picked 14 of the match day 23 at the Millennium Stadium, with injury ruling out at least another half-dozen likely to have been in the frame again this time around.

Indeed with the exception of the now retired Paul O'Connell, I'm not too sure the line-up would have differed that much at all, with CJ Stander the lone intruder, so to speak.

If battered and bruised bodies have recovered from a crazy six-day turnaround (with little thanks to authorities who profess to have player welfare at the top of their agenda) then this Ireland squad is good enough to go to Paris and make it back to-back wins in the French capital for the first time since a run of success there between 1925 and 1929.

I like what Noves is about but suspect we may have enough to widen our defensive line and at the same time bully the frontline bullies who have so often bullied us in Paris.

I am hugely excited by the ball-carrying potential of this newly assembled Irish back-row.

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Tommy O'Donnell (pictured above) did so much right and precious little wrong against the Welsh and yet finds himself on the bench six days on.

But once Sean O'Brien was declared fit, he had to come in.

I anticipate that this could be one of the great back-row combinations to wear green and yet the chemistry has still to be proven.

What better place to do it against a quality back-row in Wenceslas Lauret, Yacouba Camara and Chouly, but lacking the hugely influential Louis Picamoles?

Much will depend of course on the performance of our tight five.

If Ireland can keep a rein on the French scrum, then it's game on for Stander, O'Brien and Heaslip. On last week's evidence it represents the one area of pressing concern.

How we perform in the scrum - and it will be an 80-minute slog with Slimani and Ben Arous certain to be set loose from the bench, probably on the hour - will be absolutely paramount.

Devin Toner was like a man possessed against the Welsh and he must demand at least that of himself again today.

Beyond that the Kearney bothers ought have little difficulty slotting in to the back three, although Andrew Trimble will have his work cut out in tracking Virimi Vakatawa, but no better buachaill.

That and defending the wider channels with an even greater intensity and line-speed from last week, and in almost every other area we look strong.

Verdict: Ireland by six.

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