Wednesday 22 November 2017

Alan Quinlan: Painful Paris days mean nothing to the modern player

French teams used to beat up Irish sides in the flesh as well as the scoreboard, but those days are gone - if we break even in the scrum, we will win

A new generation of players including the likes of Ronan O'Gara took the fear factor of
Paris away by refusing to take a backward step (SPORTSFILE)
A new generation of players including the likes of Ronan O'Gara took the fear factor of Paris away by refusing to take a backward step (SPORTSFILE)

Alan Quinlan

I walk out of the dressing-room into a narrow tunnel and look to my right. Professional rugby is three years old and it is evident here. Big men stand in the line next to me. Big. Powerful. Bruisers.

And they turn and catch my eye, look me up and down and practically sneer in my face. Outside, you hear a band playing, the noise of a crowd getting louder.

And they're here for one thing: to watch the French run up a big score while having a laugh at the Irish. Because that's what the French have always done since the 1940s. They're better than us and they know it. This is 1998. Ireland have won only once in Paris since 1952 and that win wasn't even in my lifetime.

I'm a young man, 23, and anxious. A citing commissioner does not exist in rugby. Nor do TMOs. But intimidation does. Gouging does. Stamps on the head? Punches to the face? This is France. Anything goes. I know that when I walk out of this tunnel and into that arena that my health is at risk.

And so is my rugby reputation. Most of us expect to lose and expect be gouged and beaten up. You prepare yourself for it because this is the reality. Irish teams get beat up in France. Have done pretty much every time they have come here since the Second World War - at international and provincial level.

Things are changing, though. Two young coaches - Warren Gatland and Declan Kidney - are getting into our heads. The next day Gatland will lead an Irish team to the brink of victory in the Stade de France and two years later he, helped by a young man called Brian O'Driscoll, will finally get that win in the French capital.

But tonight? In this faraway Brittany town, we won't win. But we've decided in our heads that we want to do more than merely survive, than to hope we don't get beaten up either in the flesh or on the scoreboard. We want to compete, and at the very least, win some respect.

Did other Irish teams share that belief in the '90s? Well, I wasn't an eyewitness for every game but from the day I was born in 1974 to this day, March 6, 1998, all I have known is this: the countries have met 24 times and Ireland have won twice, France on 20 occasions.

And in Paris? The stats are damning. Thirteen games, 13 French wins. Irish teams lost before a ball was kicked.

Until Kidney says enough is enough. "Why can't we win in France?" he asks us. "Why shouldn't it happen? You have to change the way we think." Gatland says the same thing at international level.

And here, in this 'A' international, we buy into the new philosophy. We don't manage the win. But it finishes 30-30. A point is earned and a point is made. Irish teams can do something in France. We aren't just fall-guys. A new breed of player is emerging, the O'Driscolls, O'Garas, Horgans and Stringers. Within a couple of years, they combine to get that win in France. Then they beat them again in Dublin the next year and also in 2003.

At provincial level, Kidney's prophecy comes true. We get the breakthrough win on French soil against Colomiers in 1999, the season we reach the European final. Going to France no longer scares us. We beat Toulouse in Bordeaux that season. Something has changed.

As the years go by, Leinster learn how to do it too, and after a decade of near misses, the Irish team follows up on the O'Driscoll hat-trick day by drawing in Paris in 2012 and winning there in 2014.

Suddenly there is a different tone to this rivalry. Suddenly France no longer rule by fear. What they got away with in the old days - the borderline brutality - is no longer an issue. The new breed of French player is athletic, disciplined and aware that if they get caught gouging or stamping, they'll be banned.

Just as importantly, the new breed of Irish player is a distant cousin of his predecessor. The inherent lack of confidence which was prevalent in the '90s has gone. The new attitude, personified by O'Driscoll, is this: 'we can beat any team, anywhere'. And it isn't idle talk. Results speak louder than words. Munster beat a Toulouse side managed by Guy Noves in 2000, Leinster do the same thing six years later.

So why can't Ireland win today? Why does ancient history - just three Irish wins in Paris since 1952 - matter more than recent history, where Ireland are unbeaten in five games in this fixture?

All the old issues are irrelevant. The fear of gouging going unpunished, of France having fitter, faster, better conditioned and more skilful players than us. If anything, the Irish player is fitter now than his French counterpart.

Plus he is better coached. Joe Schmidt is a superior tactician to Noves. The Irish game-plan is better defined than the French one. The modern-day coach gets his hands dirty on the training paddock. Noves, however, delegates that to his deputies.

A guy I know - a former coach who has come across Noves in his time - reckons he is yesterday's man and France are yesterday's team. That their players are flogged to death by their clubs and were clearly not that interested in the national team when Philippe Saint-Andre was in charge.

That's why Noves is there now. I've seen him in action. I was there in 2000 when he marched his team into the press room before our Heineken Cup semi-final. I remember the big grumpy head on him, his body language, the sheer drama of it all. He walks in and these monstrous looking men come in behind him with their game-faces on. The intention was to intimidate us.

But that kind of stuff doesn't work anymore. Results have proven as much. These days the modern-day player yearns for detail. They want to be educated. Passion and aggression? They have their place - otherwise Noves wouldn't be in a job, because those are the qualities he is expected to instil into their national side.

He'll get them to play too, to throw the ball around. "It is the French way." And that makes me nervous rather than fearful about what will happen today because I can visualise things clicking for Noves and his team. Their scrum is good whereas the Irish one had a difficult time of it against the Welsh in the first half of last week's game before Greg Feek corrected things at half-time.

If the French get the upper hand in this department then it is difficult to see Ireland winning. Yet if we break even at scrum time then another Irish victory is on the cards because tactically, Schmidt has an edge over Noves.

Defensively, Ireland were organised and effective last week whereas this was an area where the French struggled against the Italians. Will Noves correct that issue in the course of a week? It's at best unclear.

What seems clearer is that the French have hugely talented individuals but did not function collectively in the Italian game. From what Trevor Brennan has told me about Noves, he'll not stand for that. Six changes were made to his side for a reason. The man isn't afraid to be ruthless. Sooner or later, the French team will realise that if they don't do things his way, they're gone.

If that realisation dawns on them today, I fear for us. My hunch, though, is that he needs more time to get his message across. Ireland to win, 24-16.

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