Monday 20 November 2017

We'll always have Paris

With a winning start under his belt, Declan Kidney has a lot in his favour going to France, says Brendan Fanning

A s a taster for this afternoon's match in Murrayfield, ESPN Classic reran the 1990 meeting between Scotland and France at the same venue. It was like opening the door on a different world.

The weather was the same but the gear was a lot looser and the body shapes more random, and the game plan too was from another era when laws and modes were old school. In the midst of the helter skelter, though, was a rationale that was inescapable: the Scots were making France play a game that didn't appeal to them.

The 21-year-old Craig Chalmers at out-half kicked everything that came to him. And that was limited because scrum-half Gary Armstrong had first call on bogging it. And at full-back there was the booming boot of Gavin Hastings whose only thoughts of running were the speed at which he had taken the field in the first place, and whether or not he could recreate it at the final whistle to avoid the throng.

And that speed had been impressive. In those days teams were extremely highly charged before they left the changing room and until David Sole's slow walk, later in the same Grand Slam campaign, everybody tore onto the field as if they were late for a fight. Which of course is what it was.

The laws and customs of the game made it easier to effect the style the Scots used that day. For a start, to be going forward when the ball broke down meant you could restart the game with your scrum. This was three years before 'use it or lose it' came in. So forwards attended the scene of the tackle in emergency mode.

In numbers they piled in with the intention of going forward rather than bridging over the ball as happens nowadays. And they used the opportunity to stamp on their opponents at every opportunity. You watch rugby from that era nowadays and wonder how the shoe fest went on for so long.

Anyway, on awful days when it was cold and wet the tactic of putting the ball in the air and kicking the victim when it came down was as popular as it was effective. And for home games against France it was not so much the weapon of choice for the Scots and ourselves as the only weapon to hand. Or foot as it were.

Playing in Paris was a different story. The French, too, were advocates of physical intimidation, but they added variety. They ran you around as well as kicked you. So their opponents would be exhausted as well as battered. Trying to coerce the home team, in either Parc des Princes or Stade de France, into a game they didn't want to play was a whole lot harder. That climb levelled out a bit with law changes, and eased further when the French put aside the amphetamines that allegedly supercharged their home performances in the 1970s and '80s.

Still, it posed the dilemma of how to do what the Scots did that day in Murrayfield and take the French as far from their comfort zone as possible. In 1998, with Warren Gatland taking the reins for the first time, Ireland went for a damage limitation exercise and were stunned at how it almost turned into victory.

Gatland's team defended from the outside in, depriving the French of space early on, and instead of figuring a way around it, Raphael Ibanez's team lost the plot. Eric Elwood kicked the corners accurately and the Irish forwards stopped the French maul at source. A two-point defeat? It was right up there on that high ground reserved for moral victories.

Six years later, Eddie O'Sullivan tried a variation on the theme. In 2004, he brought his Ireland side to open a campaign that would start depressingly and end in triumph. Critically, Brian O'Driscoll was missing. So too were Geordan Murphy and Denis Hickie. Evidently, the absence of those three took the sting out of the Ireland back line, but the lack of ambition extended even to areas of the field where it didn't really matter who you had in jerseys 11, 13 and 15, you still had to try something.

That day, however, Ireland's attacks were limited to driving mauls. Paul O'Connell was posted at the front of the lineout and the only plan was to shunt the French backwards. As an exercise in frustrating the home side, you could see the merit of it, but it became the end rather than the means. And with that, decent attacking opportunities were pitched overboard for fear giving the ball any air would see it disappear.

In fairness to O'Sullivan, he wasn't wedded in his career to the idea of progression being solely a function of the forwards. Two years later, he went back to Paris with a side that contained Murphy and O'Driscoll. This time they tried to play rugby, and we witnessed the freakiest set of circumstances unfolding: Ireland playing really well, better than ever in fact in Paris, and heading for a record defeat. If the ball wasn't bouncing off someone's head into the arms of a French player then it was coming off his knee. With the same result. At half-time, France led 29-0. Early in the second half they scored again, and if we hadn't been paid to be there, to tell the mortifying story of what was happening, we would have bunked off.

The comeback was epic and would have given Ireland two wins at Stade de France in the space of four visits having never won in the revamped Parc des Princes in 12 attempts. France hung on, gasping, and Ireland left rueing the bizarre nature of the first 45 minutes, but happy at least that their physical conditioning was very good and they could play rugby that threatened even France at home.

Now Declan Kidney makes the trip with a team whose record is, by Irish standards, astonishing: after yesterday's win they are unbeaten in 12 Tests. This has included riding out storms against Wales, Australia and South Africa to secure either the win or the draw. Priceless stuff.

When we went to Paris in September 2007, the wheels were already coming off our World Cup wagon, six days after scraping past Georgia with four points to spare. Ironically, given what had gone before, it was when Ireland deviated from the grunt, which was causing France real pain, that they ran aground.

And when we went there in 2008 it turned into a rough impression of the 2006 match, with another comeback falling short. Respectively Ireland's record en route to Paris in 2007 had been 8/12, and then 7/12 in 2008. Neither came close to the form or mental health of the current squad, nor indeed the depth of contenders for places.

So Declan Kidney has a lot going for him heading into Valentine's weekend. In general his players have become accustomed to either winning or not losing, and the evidence of Ireland's last three visits to Paris suggests that the team can thrive if they get the balance right between driving the French mad, and playing rugby. On the days when Ireland have done well though they have always been able to survive turbulence at the set-piece. This is their biggest challenge now.

We won't know whether the wind is at France's backs or in their faces until Nigel Owens blows it up in Edinburgh this afternoon. Losing Jean-Baptiste Ellisalde off the bench for today, and against Ireland, weakens the squad most importantly on the goal-kicking front where injury to Morgan Parra could be catastrophic. And losing the massive Romain Millo-Chluski from the second row -- for today, but probably not for Saturday -- robs Marc Lievremont of a player who is developing into France's powerhouse up front. Having been a bit of a lazy lump a few seasons ago, the Toulouse man was key to their success in New Zealand last summer, and as the coach put it last week, he is now the central plank of their forward pack.

Lievremont now knows who he wants in his squad and his tinkering of two seasons ago is largely done. So having to go back to Freddie Michalak doesn't suit him. He also wanted badly to kick off the Championship with Fabien Barcella and Nicolas Mas on either side of the front row, but losing Barcella for most of the campaign is a setback that will ease Kidney's concerns.

Is all this upset in the ranks enough for Scotland to take a lump out of them? Not with Euan Murray unavailable, and not if Lievremont has designs on being competitive in New Zealand next year. France's last six games have all been against southern hemisphere opposition and uniquely for them he has had the luxury of a free week ahead of this weekend thanks to the Top 14 pausing for breath. Yes, those six Tests have been spread out since last June, but going to Murrayfield today is not in the same league.

A win there and Declan Kidney's incline will steepen. It's likely that his own plan involved running the same team through Croke Park and Stade de France but that went south early in the week when Jonny Sexton was ruled out. It was a game he really needed to play, for his own sake and that of the team's development.

The range he has in his game currently would come in useful in Paris, but missing yesterday militates against inclusion now. It's not as if Ronan O'Gara doesn't know what's required there. He has made the trip six times with Ireland and seen it from all angles. Another flawless kicking display like yesterday would be good. In the not-too-distant future, he will be featuring on ESPN in what was a classic start for him there, in 2000. It hasn't got any easier.

Sunday Independent

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