Sport Rugby

Friday 15 November 2019

French fear factor is now a thing of the past

Paul O'Connell and Thierry Dusautoir lead out their teams at the Stade de France in 2012. Despite our dismal record in Paris, Irish players have become used to winning on French soil with their provinces
Paul O'Connell and Thierry Dusautoir lead out their teams at the Stade de France in 2012. Despite our dismal record in Paris, Irish players have become used to winning on French soil with their provinces
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

No medals were handed out, no titles were won, but Saturday was an unqualified success for Brian O'Driscoll and Irish rugby.

The dignified manner in which O'Driscoll and his family handled the emotion of this unprecedented occasion really did say everything about the man.

And for the IRFU the classy way they handled the day was perfectly judged.

The glitz and glamour surrounding the great man's final appearance on home turf was special. It was a once-off celebration for a once-off kind of player.

It has been put to bed, and O'Driscoll and his team-mates can now prepare themselves for one final, massive challenge.

Even if the French roll us over, as they regularly do in Paris, Philippe Saint-Andre's disjointed squad will not take this year's Six Nations title, given the significant points-difference advantage England – the most impressive team over the four games to date – hold even before they run out in Rome.

Despite three teams being tied on six points, I feel the title battle is a two-horse race between Stuart Lancaster and Joe Schmidt (the two most reasoned and humble coaches in the Six Nations by a mile).

Were the bonus-point system in operation – and I believe it should be – then Ireland would sit a point ahead of England and France after Saturday's seven-try haul against the Italians.


Either way, Ireland are still in pole position ahead of the final series of games, though they do have one enormous mountain to climb.

Can we record only our third win in the French capital in 60 years? The answer is unequivocally yes, for two reasons.

I believe we can win on Saturday primarily because we are a better organised, better structured, better balanced unit playing with a lot of confidence.

The same certainly cannot be said of the French on all evidence to date – that most fortunate win over Lancaster's men in 'Le Crunch' included.

We are also sending out a side made up of players now comfortable playing and winning in France. That fear factor – which certainly existed in my time – is long gone. We will have neither fear nor complacency running out in the Stade de France and that is a good place for Schmidt's men to be.

We are comfortable being in the driving seat going into this collision – it is a status that has been hard-earned.

One thing that is for sure is that if we are to take our second title of the Six Nations era in Schmidt's maiden championship and O'Driscoll's last, then it is going to be done the hard way.

The fact that Louis Picamoles and Dimitri Szarzewski are back on board indicates the French mindset and determination to finish on a high.

Make no mistake, the hosts will be looking to come at Ireland with all guns blazing.

A passionate rendition of 'La Marseillaise' is guaranteed, but this is an Ireland squad improving in terms of consistency and belief with every game.

Even in defeat at Twickenham against the strongest physical force in the competition we looked comfortable in adversity and, despite losing to the better unit on the day, we could still have pulled a win out of the fire.

The outstanding if sporadic success under Eddie O'Sullivan and Declan Kidney was underscored by inconsistency – for Schmidt, consistency has been the fundamental objective and it has been the platform for what has been achieved so far.

I will deal with the finer details later in the week, but for now the key is to put the Aviva farewell to O'Driscoll behind us, cure the cuts and bruises and completely focus on the opposition – not the occasion – on Saturday.

From one to 23 we were ruthless against the Italians and it was really heartening, and significant, that 19 points came off the bench in the final quarter.

It was proof positive, if such were necessary, of a happy and unified camp in which every man knows he has a big part to play.

The presence of Tommy Bowe (although he did train with the squad in Carton House last week) will add to morale this week, but despite my enormous admiration for the Ulster winger I believe, on the assumption Cian Healy, Conor Murray and Peter O'Mahony are fit, there should be just the one change to the 23 for duty against the French.

And for the record I thought Eoin Reddan in particular added appreciably to the Irish tempo upon his introduction.

With Iain Henderson's versatility across the back-five forward positions, the luxury of having both Rhys Ruddock and Jordi Murphy on the bench (back-row forwards both) will of necessity be shelved. Henderson will step down to replace one or the other – that call is for Schmidt and John Plumtree to make.

It's a towering task for this Ireland side, but they are capable of giving O'Driscoll an even better day than the one he enjoyed at Lansdowne Road.


Fergus plays his part

Of all quotes and tweets surrounding the weekend's drama, the best for me – and the one that gave me a chuckle – came from try scorer Fergus McFadden.

It read: "That standing ovation I got coming off the bench yesterday was amazing."

I love the Kildare man's sense of humour. The Tweet struck a chord on two levels. First and foremost was his state of mind, much though he wanted to get out there, at having to replace the irreplaceable on this day of all days.

Secondly, I could identify with him, having been that 'usurper' when coming on for Ollie Campbell against England at the same ground back in 1983.

The public have been very kind to me down the years, but that day, by way of the ovation (for Ollie), I felt a real party pooper!

So Fergus, well done: a good sense of humour, particularly in the role of replacement, is everything.

Irish Independent

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