Old master with useful lessons for French test
THE professional rugby player tends to be a self-obsessed individual.
He has to be. DVD analysis these days extends from match-day to training pitch to gym, leaving scant room for concealment, thus rendering self-analysis and the constant search for improvement a necessary element of the job.
It means players focus on immediate and future objectives with little inclination to dwell on the past, particularly not with the 'back in my day' brigade who played in the dim and distant. Yet, the Irish squad could do a lot worse than take some time out with team manager Paul McNaughton ahead of a fixture where Ireland have tasted victory just once in 38 years -- before even John Hayes was born.
McNaughton is a low-key, quietly efficient and significant cog in this Irish wheel -- an excellent sounding board for coach Declan Kidney with whom he enjoys a close personal and working relationship. But, while Kidney's playing experience does not stretch beyond Munster club rugby, McNaughton has access to a memory bank that includes 15 caps between 1978 and 1981 -- and two defeats in Paris, both by a solitary point.
The first was a 10-9 reverse in '78, three Tony Ward penalties not enough to overcome Jerome Gallion's try and two kicks by Jean-Michel Aguirre while two years later it was 19-18 to the French, in spite of 14 points from Ollie Campbell and a Freddie McLennan try.
Different era, different game . . . no arguments there, but the same psychological tests and same result as experienced by many of tomorrow's squad over the past 10 years which means when McNaughton speaks about Ireland's lack of success in the French capital, he deserves to be heard.
"It's a very difficult place to win," said McNaughton yesterday. "We've won twice there in 38 years -- 19 occasions. There has been some very close games, but it probably is too long to go without winning there.
"This team is a confident team and they certainly feel that they should have won over there more often. They're confident going into this one that they have as good a chance, if not better, than before but it's still a difficult place to win.
"It's not just Ireland that find it difficult, other teams (do) as well. Our failure to put away France for the last 38 years is a recurring theme," he added.
"It goes back to the teams in the 1970s and 1980s that lost 9-8 and 19-18 and stuff like that. The history sometimes is lost on the guys though. They're not interested really, they don't focus on it quite frankly."
Stephen Ferris' return to the team is a big boost and the back-row battle promises to be a defining contest with the French trio of Thierry Dusautoir, Fulgence Ouedraogo and Imanol Harinordoquy. Plus ca change -- in McNaughton's day they had players of the calibre of Jean Pierre Rives, Jean Luc Joinel, Jean Claude Skrela and Jean Pierre Bastiat.
"It's one of the best combinations in world rugby," said Ireland forwards coach Gert Smal when assessing the French back-row for tomorrow.
"That's what Test rugby is all about. It's a test to see if you're good enough against the top players in the world and that's the opportunity that we get and we're looking forward to the challenge.
"We take it game by game," added Smal. "If you want to win a competition we'll do exactly as we did last year, prepare the best you can. It's all that's expected of you. On the day you must put your men together, that's where it counts.
"This whole game was put up as the game of the Six Nations. This team, it doesn't phase them much. This team is ready to go for big things and hopefully we can start that on Saturday."
Looking ahead and not back is perhaps the most sensible approach, particularly when the rear-view mirror reveals the various car crashes of failure stretching far down the road.
Yet, as the players seek to quell nerves and fill their down time ahead of tomorrow's kick-off, a quiet chat with their manager, or indeed their forwards coach (who helped mastermind South Africa's World Cup victory in Paris in 2007) could help prepare, and steel, them for this latest assault on the record books.