Friday 23 March 2018

Kidney looks for calm under fire

With the greatest of deference to stolidly grey Edinburgh on a rain-soaked afternoon, this is more like it.

The south of France. A slowly descending orb still exuding a glow warm enough to tip the mercury well beyond 20 degrees. A passionate, patriotic home crowd.

A World Cup warm-up? The greater difficulty this evening, one suspects, will be finding a moment to take the merest calm, cool breather.

If last week offered the meekest defence against insomnia, Stade Chaban-Delmas will offer something entirely different. Expect the first wafts of the World Cup to hang in the sultry air.

"Playing France at the best of times is always one of the ones you look forward to," enthused Declan Kidney ahead of the 8.45 kick-off (7.45 Irish time). "Playing in the south of France probably makes it a bit more special. You know that at 9.0 at night there will be a bit of the 'ole ole' and the atmosphere will be fantastic."

Aside from absorbing the type of rugby atmosphere that remains unique to archetypal rugby towns in this part of the world, Kidney's primary aim will be to secure a result.

However, with only this and next week's return fixture available left for candidates to stake their place in the 30-man World Cup squad, there are numerous side-shows which will exercise Kidney and his coaching staff.

"Last week, we turned the ball over a few times -- a few dropped passes but also a few chip-throughs, some of which were successful, some of which were easy turnovers for the opposition.

"It's at times like that that you need to be patient. It's about playing through phases. We can't just have set-piece and go through one or two phases. We need to putting through nine, 10 and 11 phases to break teams down. And that's more pertinent here because we know France are the best side on capitalising on mistakes."

He may have been alluding to the retention of the outside three; two of them, Luke Fitzgerald and Rob Kearney, are searching for form for different reasons; inside, much of the spotlight will be placed upon the slight but formidable frame of Keith Earls.

Earls won't be expected to fill Brian O'Driscoll's boots, for who possibly can? He is merely filling in, but there is some excitement in anticipation of what the Munster man may bring to the party.

Inside him, critics will carp at a potential defensive weakness but both Paddy Wallace and Ronan O'Gara have solidified their efforts in this department during the latter months of last season.

A better looking pack than last week's should provide more comfort, particularly in the ball-carrying department. Facing down a French side in their back garden will be a stern test.

"They're obviously going to come pretty aggressively at scrum time and we need to stand up in that area," said captain Leo Cullen.

Kidney has admitted that he can't be entirely egalitarian about his World Cup squad deliberations. Hence, a player like Conor Murray will be pushed to the limit when he gets a chance to impress from the bench against either or both the French nines, monsieurs Parra et Yachvili.

If he can keep a cool head in those circumstances, who knows?

"It's important that you don't go quiet in the surroundings," advised his captain. "It's very easy to get derailed mentally by what's going on around you. They'll come with some intensity and it's easy to go quiet and have doubts about yourself.

"That's when you need your character to come to the fore and be a little more vocal than you're used to being. That's the challenge for players, I guess. The more times you experience it, the easier it becomes. But it's still going to be a tough test."

It is that sort of character -- from the senior players who have seen and done it all, through to the greenhorns -- that Kidney will want to see plenty of this evening.

Friendly? You must be kidding.

"That's the great thing about rugby, isn't it? The game itself just emits honesty. You're either up for it or you're not. If you get a chance to put on a jersey, whether it's an Ireland jersey or a French jersey, there's only one way to play.

"There is no hiding place. You either play and put yourselves forward, otherwise you shouldn't be out there."

Kidney hinted last night that he has a fair idea of his squad composition at this stage; time is running out for those seeking to lay down a marker.

"In a perverse way you want more headaches. You don't want to lose a player through injury. The reason for having this number is that we can have somebody ready-made to come in should someone come out," he said.

"You need to be open-minded enough. Obviously I have a fair idea of what I'm going to do. I wouldn't be true to the players if I didn't give them the chance to show what they can do."

Unlike Ireland, Kidney has happier memories of Bordeaux, as he recalled Munster's stunning Heineken Cup semi-final against Toulouse in the broiling heat here 11 years ago.

"Fantastic memories, personally," he said. "But the lads won here four years ago as well. There might have been a criticism after that but if the same happens this time when we win, I'll settle for that."

IRELAND -- R Kearney (Leinster); A Trimble (Ulster), K Earls (Munster), P Wallace (Ulster), L Fitzgerald (Leinster); R O'Gara (Munster), E Reddan (Leinster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), M Ross (Leinster); D O'Callaghan (Munster), L Cullen (Leinster, capt); D Ryan (Munster), S O'Brien (Leinster), D Leamy (Munster). Reps: J Flannery (Munster), T Buckley (Sale), P O'Connell (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster), C Murray (Munster), F McFadden (Leinster), F Jones (Munster).

FRANCE -- D Traille; V Clerc, D Marty, M Mermoz, A Palisson; F Trinh-Duc, D Yachvili; S Marconnet, D Szarzewski, L Ducalcon; J Pierre, R Millo-Chluski; T Dusautoir (Capt), I Harinordoquy, R Lakafia. Reps: G Guirado, J-B Poux, L Nallet, J Bonnaire, M Parra, D Skrela, M Médard, (F Barcella -- 23rd man).

France v Ireland,

Live, RTE 2, 7.45

Irish Independent

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