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Irish keep powder dry for Paris raid

The Irish players and coaches have been around long enough, and done enough, to let this one slide as nothing more than a reason to concentrate the minds.

It is common sense to presume that they were never going to reveal to the world, and France in particular, what they have up their sleeves for Paris. There is more to come. There has to be.

Whether they took their collective eye off the ball or failed to live up to the standards they have set for themselves is neither here nor there, for the moment. Italy was a rope to be skipped -- no more, no less.

If Ireland can expose France for the first time since Brian O'Driscoll's hat-trick in 2000, the memory of their mediocre match against the Azzurri will fade into the background as nothing more than an inglorious start to another glorious chapter in the history of this team.

The whole prospect of Ireland putting back-to-back Grand Slams, however implausible that sounds, still hangs on how they manage to handle the French whirlwind that will engulf them at the Stade de France.

Unquenchable

The optimists will point at how Cian Healy quietened the unquenchable Martin Castrogiovanni, how the front row, as a unit, held its ground on most occasions and crumpled Italy on others.

Jerry Flannery and Rory Best are two of the finest exponents of throwing to the lineout in the northern hemisphere and they will both find improved fitness for their involvement.

Suddenly, tight-head John Hayes, a living legend for his durability if nothing else, showed enough to suggest he is still able to hold up his side of the argument.

Perhaps, the import of the remarkable technician BJ Botha into Ulster has damaged Ireland's prospects on the tight-head side of the scrum more than any other foreign signing.

Sadly, Tom Court, pressed into service for Hayes on Saturday, was originally secured as a long-term project at tight-head. The transfer of Botha prompted Court's move to loose-head prop.

The former athlete Court is playing out of his skin for Ulster. He has settled into culture up north and started to make his considerable bulk felt in the tight and the loose. He should return to the tight-head as a 'work in progress' for the 2011 World Cup campaign.

The most obvious weakness in the entire make-up of the Ireland side from the November internationals was the powder-puff hitting power of the scrum. It would seem this has been rectified, at least to some extent.

Therefore, the pieces of the puzzle are being put into position, from the overall selection to the complementary nature of the combinations.

It was also interesting to see how Eoin Reddan and Paddy Wallace lifted the tempo of Ireland's play in the final quarter. There was more sizzle to the service of Reddan and more punch from Wallace in attack.

What Munster showed against Perpignan away from home before Christmas, and what Leinster showed against Munster in last season's Heineken Cup semi-final, was an almost instantaneous transformation of form.

The Munster, Leinster and Ulster players and Tommy Bowe are in excellent form as individuals within the framework of their clubs. Hopefully, this is the blow out they needed to have them humming next Saturday.

The reality of the spectre of injury is a worry. Stephen Ferris (leg) and Donncha O'Callaghan (knee) continue their rehabilitation. Ronan O'Gara (knee) and Andrew Trimble (hamstring) will be monitored closely.

Even then, there is a strong argument for retaining the services of Leinster captain Leo Cullen as a leader figure with all the hard-nosed application that comes with that.

Technicalities

Cullen is the all-round equal of O'Callaghan at the basics of the position, with a superior nose for the technicalities of the game and, perhaps, an inferior impact in the looser aspects.

For sure, it is one of the great discriminations of the game that the admirable O'Callaghan has gathered 58 caps, while Cullen stands on 21, following his first Six Nations start since 2003.

While Kevin McLaughlin delivered on his promise to do what he does for Leinster, Kidney will want to see Ferris overcome his problem to add the requisite increase in natural power and unnatural aggression to Ireland's blindside.

Of course, the idea of Sexton and O'Gara falling foul of injury would be a serious blow to Ireland's plan to beat France in Paris for just the third time since WW2. Kidney must have one of them on the plane.

These coaches and players deserve an investment of faith from supporters all over the island that they know what they are doing, that they can deliver in the moment most needed.


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