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'Our plan is coming together'

IRELAND’S young bull Cian Healy is a rock in a hard place. The furnace doesn’t burn any hotter than at the coalface of international rugby.

Moreover, the professional life of a loosehead prop doesn’t get any tougher than dealing with French tight-heads Luc Ducalcon and Nicolas Mas Saturday-on- Saturday. There will be other scrum anchors to shift next week, maybe England’s Dan Cole, and others after him at the World Cup. They come in various shapes and sizes. For instance, his previous foe, Castres Olympique’s Ducalcon, weighs in at a hefty 19 stone. His next, Perpignan’s Mas, is no giant at 17ƒ stone – just about the same weight as Healy.

“Each have their difficulties. The big fella has the weight that is just so hard to shift. The smaller one – you could push him easily – but he can get in underneath you and do a job on your chest,” stated Healy. “It is a nice challenge to be mixing it up with different size props and different skills. Mas is a pretty strong scrummager. He is a good player in general play as well. He will be a huge challenge.”

The plight of the modern-day prop stretches way beyond his remit at scrum time. The breakdown is always an area of concern, especially at the beginning of a new season. Ireland struggled there in the first half in Bordeaux. “We are looking at a two-three (players) in and have a quick go. If it is not there, it is not there. We were done for holding in (last season) and trying to go for it again,” he said. “We gave away a lot of stupid penalties that will overall put you into a tough position to get out of. It is a conscious decision to have a quick pop and set ourselves – get the ‘D’ (defence) sorted.

“Defence is pretty much what you win games on. You can slug away, get a couple of kicks and win a game if you hold your line. The work that Les (Kiss) has been doing with us has been paying off hugely. “We haven’t even done that many contact sessions, but all the lads are pretty ready body-wise and physicality-wise already. It is just a case of getting that right in the games, continuing to test ourselves in defence to limit the number of tackles broken or gain lines made.” The appearances of two ‘Ls’ in the winloss columns is not a worry. As Brian O’Driscoll stressed earlier in the week, this is not the World Cup. “It is not a concern. It is not something about which we have sat down and said ‘oh God, this is a bad place we’re in’. Everyone is happy with our game plan and how it is coming together. It is early days. These are opportunities to get that brand we want to get nailed down. We have the time to do that.”

Yet, time is slipping by. Forget the positive vibes, the obvious advantages of the internal competitive heat that is driving the Irish squad to a state of readiness. The elite group will be shaved down to the final 30 at lunchtime on Monday. How coach Declan Kidney and his players could do with a ‘V’ for victory over France to copper-fasten their preparations. For all the glowing talk of the Kissdesigned defence and the development in the collective performance from game one to game two, Kidney needs to see a transformation in attack to make the difference between winning and losing. The return of captain O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy removes the air of uncertainty about Ireland’s midfield and replaces it with a time-honoured partnership.

Munster’s Keith Earls has also got his wish, a return to the left wing where he can spark Ireland to life down the tramline and make use of a licence to thrill by popping up further infield. For all the public-speak about greater squad depth than four years ago, Kidney selected the same pack that played against France, Scotland, Wales and England in the Six Nations. No change there then until a hamstrung David Wallace was replaced by Shane Jennings yesterday. The front-five will have to come together better as a unit than they have in the last two weeks. The lineout, scrum and breakdown are the non-negotiables of international rugby. They simply have to function. Without a proper foothold in those foundation blocks, Ireland will be in a slow boat to nowhere. The bare facts dictate that France should be more ring-rusty with coach Marc Lievremont retaining just two players.

VERDICT: Ireland

IRELAND: F Jones; A Trimble, B O’Driscoll (capt), G D’Arcy, K Earls; J Sexton, T O’Leary; C Healy, R Best, M Ross, D O’Callaghan, P O’Connell, S O’Brien, S Jennings, J Heaslip.

FRANCE: C Heymans; M Medard, A Rougerie, F Estebanez, A Palisson; D Skrela, M Parra; JB Poux, D Szarzewski, N Mas, P Pape, L Nallet (capt), F Quedraogo, J Bonnaire, L Picamoles.