Saturday 16 December 2017

Rolling over France the only thing that matters

George Hook

George Hook

Ireland cannot go to the World Cup with just a win over Connacht under their belt. Every coach has talked about the importance of momentum going in to the tournament and Ireland cannot expect to be exempt from the laws of sporting gravity.

Home advantage in the remaining two games against France and England is a plus; but the opponents will arrive with the biggest packs in world rugby, an area in which Declan Kidney's team is hardly heavily endowed.

This afternoon, even by French standards, the back row of Louise Picamoles, Julien Bonnaire and Fulgence Ouedraogo is huge. Ireland's back-row problem is compounded by the loss of David Wallace, who could yet travel to New Zealand without playing a match.

The chips are equally stacked high for his replacement Shane Jennings, who, one suspects, is not in Kidney's plans. For some extraordinary reason, the coach may travel awash with tight flankers and bereft on the open side. Were Sean O'Brien to be selected at No 7 in New Zealand, then it would be doing player and team a disservice.

Ireland's only two prop forwards, Cian Healy and Mike Ross, feature this evening because any other combination would guarantee a loss. All the talk of a forward/backs split of 16/14 or 17/13 is predicated on whether or not four or five props are selected.

The paucity of front-row forwards demonstrates the nonsense of bringing five players of whom only two can play. Tom Court is by default a certainty and John Hayes looks certain to achieve the unwanted title of the oldest player in a World Cup for the second successive tournament.

Twelve backs are already on the plane to New Zealand and today Felix Jones is playing for his place should Kidney decide he needs another full-back rather than rely on a utility player. Should he go for Jones, then it looks like a straight fight between Fergus McFadden and Luke Fitzgerald. Thursday night in Donnybrook has surely tilted the scales in McFadden's favour.

If Jones is an indication of the coach's willingness to give youth a break, then his decision on Conor Murray may determine his place in history. Against Connacht, Murray, to Isaac Boss' obvious chagrin, got most of the second half.

The youngster then proceeded to demonstrate his strength, his passing and, above all, his unflappability despite trying too hard too impress.

It is more than possible that Murray could be Ireland's starting No 9 in February for the Six Nations, but deemed not good enough in August. I am reminded of the contest for World U-21 Player of the Year some years ago. The two prime contenders were Jerome Kaino of New Zealand and Ireland's Jamie Heaslip. Within a year Kaino was an All Black, while Heaslip was plying his trade with TCD in the lower reaches of the All-Ireland League.

Ireland will travel to the southern hemisphere having played more warm-up games than any of their European brethren. Marc Lievremont, like Andy Robinson in Scotland and Nick Mallet in Italy, has decided on just two games, effectively giving the bulk of his squad just one game to be fit for the contest. In the case of France, it is made incomprehensible by the erratic selection policies of the coach.

While we agonise over bringing recognised full-backs, the French ignore the claims of almost every full-back in France to play wings and centres in the crucial position. Nevertheless, this afternoon's selection demonstrates the enormous depth at Lievremont's disposal, although one senses that it is casting pearls before swine. Only at out-half is there a chink in the French armour and had Ronan O'Gara's parents lived in Paris rather than San Diego, Les Bleus could have been looking at successive tournament victories in New Zealand.

The French game plan is clear, at least as much as it ever is with this coach, but in Bordeaux they demonstrated a desire to return to French traditional virtues of passing and off-loading at pace. Even in the inhospitable surroundings of the Aviva Stadium, that could be too much for an Ireland team still trying to decide how to counter-attack, whether to kick or to pass and with lightweight set-pieces.

No doubt there will be the usual cliched pre-match interviews in which the desire of a performance overrides the result. This time the objectives have equal weight. Ireland must win and in the process show that they have the steel and skill to compete with the major world powers.

Mick Carroll, the old Terenure stalwart and IRFU member, once said that he would prefer to see Ireland lose trying to win than trying to keep the score down. For Declan Kidney and his team, neither of those options exist.

Irish Independent

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