Tuesday 21 August 2018

Alan Quinlan preview France v Ireland: Les Bleus may be in the doldrums but they could still break our hearts

Odds are stacked against hosts but Ireland must be ready for another intense Paris battle

25 February 2017; Conor Murray, right, and Jonathan Sexton of Ireland during the RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship game between Ireland and France at the Aviva Stadium in Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
25 February 2017; Conor Murray, right, and Jonathan Sexton of Ireland during the RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship game between Ireland and France at the Aviva Stadium in Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Matthieu Jalibert. Photo: Getty Images

Alan Quinlan

It takes a lot to dampen the vibrant spirit of rugby addict Thomas Castaignede at any time of year, never mind on the eve of the Six Nations.

Since hanging up his boots the diminutive wizard has never been shy about offering his tuppence worth on the state of play in the game he loves, further enhancing his reputation as a brash, expressive sort whose passion for the sport rarely wavers.

Ireland captain Rory Best practising his throwing in the Stade de France yesterday. Photo: INPHO
Ireland captain Rory Best practising his throwing in the Stade de France yesterday. Photo: INPHO

Yet, when I contacted him this week it was obvious that discussions around this French team just didn't enthuse him.

The dynamo has been deflated. It seems the Gallic roosters would rather sleep this one out.

Les Bleus are in the doldrums and it's difficult to see them climbing back up any time soon, particularly with their hands tied behind their back by their self-centred club scene.

It's far from the shoulders-back, chest-out persona that once defined French rugby - an international side that intimidated Irish visitors with their aggression, ability to cut you open with one sleight of hand, and striking aura of superiority on the field.

France flyhalf Matthieu Jalibert takes part in the captain run in Marcoussis
France flyhalf Matthieu Jalibert takes part in the captain run in Marcoussis

French rugby has been on the slide ever since they came agonisingly close to extending New Zealand's wait for a second Rugby World Cup more than six years ago.

Just one point separated the teams on that Auckland evening in 2011, but for French rugby fans those heady times must seem like a lifetime ago.

Yet, for all that Ireland are expected to win this evening - and rightly so on form, experience and talent - we've been here before.

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We presumed that when David Humphreys converted Brian O'Driscoll's third and decisive try in the 27-25 win in Paris 18 years ago that the spell had been broken - the 'City of Love' would no longer be breaking our hearts every other year.

However, we have only won there once since, another two-point victory that could have gone either way, and that was to seal the Six Nations title in Joe Schmidt's first campaign at the helm.

We have all grown up expecting Ireland to be beaten in Paris and that is bound to leave a mental scar.

These two sides may appear to be travelling in different directions owing to their opposing relationships with their respective club games, but the Stade de France continues to be a haunted house for Irish rugby and the history, and skeletons of past defeats, will not be lost on either set of players.

It was only 12 months ago that Ireland were late getting off the bus in Scotland, and it wasn't long before the alarm bells were ringing due to a Six Nations campaign that was already unravelling.

That, along with the Paris fear factor, should strengthen Ireland's focus this evening but there are a few wild cards in the France camp that could catch them off guard, even though the odds seem to be stacked against the hosts.

I played against Jacques Brunel's excellent Perpignan side on a couple of occasions and they were always very pack-focused in their approach. The 64-year-old previously worked as a forwards coach with the national team under Bernard Laporte, now, of course, the head of the French Rugby Federation, and I suspect he has spent his brief time with the squad trying to nail down plans for the set-piece and breakdown.

Getting a squad Six Nations-ready in this short two-week period is incredibly difficult for a meticulous coach like Schmidt, even with the November internationals as a reference point.

So, Brunel has a big job on his hands to get this French side functioning well enough to even operate effectively at this level.

If France are to have any chance of winning this game they will have to dominate the physical exchanges, much like two years ago, when their intensity was obvious and strayed across the line of legality on a couple of occasions.

Brunel's appointment of Julien Bonnaire as lineout coach certainly catches the eye and while the 39-year-old is a sideline novice, he was an incredibly effective operator in his playing days and will have been working diligently to try and find flaws in the Ireland set-piece.

I played against many great lineout forwards during my career and Bonnaire, whether with Bourgoin, Clermont or France, always ranked right up there.

He had a great eye for where to call for the ball and was equally adept on the defensive end of things.

Ireland's lineout has become one of their greatest weapons; they have a lot of strike plays, they can attack off the back of it and they can maul with devastating effect.

Bonnaire will have focused on trying to stem those opportunities, and that will come first and foremost by putting pressure on Ireland in the air. It should be a fascinating sideshow today.

The appointments of Bonnaire and backs coach Jean-Baptiste Elissalde to Brunel's ticket are intriguing and neither should be written off because of their relative inexperience. In fact, they will probably complement an old-school coach like Brunel relatively well.

The real difficulty for this French outfit will lie in achieving any kind of fluency in round one.

A new head coach, a teenage debutant at fly-half, and a number of unsettled combinations are probably going to lead to a disjointed performance.

However, the one thing you can't do against French sides, whether it be club or country, is allow them to settle early and give them a platform for their individual brilliance to take over.

They produce unbelievable athletes and if they get their confidence up and get on the front foot they can be very dangerous, irrespective of their abysmal run of results.

Andy Farrell would have been emphasising this week how important it is to keep France off balance by constantly putting them under pressure; getting in their faces and preventing offloads.

Difficult

If you do that, it makes it very difficult for an individual like Virimi Vakatawa or Matthieu Jalibert to create something out of nothing.

The hope from a French perspective, I suspect, is that they show enough in Paris this evening to suggest that this Six Nations will not be a write-off.

If it turns out to be a disastrous campaign, the disillusionment in France will likely turn to despair and pressure will increase on Laporte to implement change domestically before the national team, currently ranked a remarkably lowly ninth in the world, slide even further into the abyss.

Much like the English Premier League, the cash-rich Top 14 may be attracting the cream of the world's crop but it's coming at the expense of their national team.

The native talent is being held back by the vast numbers of overseas players, and that needs to change.

While international soccer may no longer have the allure of times past, Test rugby is still the piece de resistance of our game, and a dash of French flair is one of its most alluring features.

That's something Castaignede understands more than most. It's no wonder he sounded deflated.

Irish Independent

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