Monday 18 December 2017

Even numbers add up to another hard slog for Ireland

George Hook believes French firepower will destroy our hopes of a Grand Slam double

George Hook

George Hook

My barber and taxi driver seem to have only one topic of conversation in recent weeks: can Ireland repeat the Grand Slam heroics of last year?

However, facts can sometimes be uncomfortable bedfellows for fans. Since 1908, when France joined the Championship, only three teams have accomplished consecutive Grand Slams on five occasions.

England leads the way with three and mighty Wales and France have achieved it just once. The great Welsh team of the '70s won three Slams in the decade but never consecutively.

The second uncomfortable fact is what Eddie O'Sullivan called the even-numbered year syndrome. The fixture list this year is more difficult than last, in that Ireland travel to Paris and London. In contrast, the French see the even numbers as an advantage; three home games including England and Ireland.

Week Three may be decisive. England could open with a win at Twickenham against Wales and then overcome the hapless Italians. In Paris, one of the two favourites will fall by the wayside when Ireland and France go head to head. It is entirely possible Martin Johnson's heretofore unheralded squad could be on a roll by the time Declan Kidney's men arrive in London.

All known form in the Heineken Cup supports the view that this championship will be a two-horse race. However, there are hurdles in the way of that accepted wisdom. The French domestic championship does not help Marc Lievremont's preparations. Already injuries are taking their toll on Les Bleus, while Kidney's luck appears to be holding with the return of Marcus Horan and good news on Jerry Flannery.

But all is not sweetness and light in the Irish camp. The pack could contain five of the Munster eight overwhelmed by Northampton and three of the Leinster forwards that could only spend one per cent of their time in the London Irish 22 for much of the second half.

Conversely, France possess an awesome scrum and are indescribably physical as the Springboks and All Blacks discovered. Our record in Paris is abysmal and it is a truism that rugby matches are won up front.

Last year Kidney surprised us all by making five changes after three victories. This year his decision will revolve around who starts at number 10 against Italy. Reading the coach's mind is a forlorn endeavour but the odds favour Ronan O'Gara. For all Jonny Sexton's confidence, this could be a momentous year and O'Gara is coming into form at the right time. The list of promising fly-halves to fail in Paris is a lengthy one and if Ireland were to beat odds and secure a victory there, then the unthinkable would become real.

At this remove, and bearing in mind the lack of consistency under Lievremont, France appear to have too much firepower for Ireland. The weakness for France is a playmaker and general at fly-half. François Trinh-Duc has never delivered on the raft of possession offered by his pack and the alternatives are Bourgoin's Benjamin Boyet, who returns for the first time since June 2008, or Brive full-back/fly-half Fabrice Estebanez, who is a new face. To win, Ireland will need a classic Kidney-inspired performance of riding the punches and striking on the counter.

Last year England arrived in Dublin as no-hopers and nearly spoiled the party. This year they appear to have even less to offer but Johnson has an ace in Jonny Wilkinson whose move to Toulon has surprisingly rehabilitated his game. The World Cup hero, who was always one-dimensional, is now even more conservative and becoming a kicker pure and simple. However, Johnson, unimaginative and truculent, could produce a team in his image and with control at number 10 make Twickenham a monumental anti-climax for Ireland after a possible celebration in Paris.

If the hard part away is achieved, it is difficult to imagine failure in Croke Park against Scotland and Wales. The Magners League and Heineken Cup have pointed to a resurgence in pride in Scottish rugby. Like England, the Scots are led by a monosyllabic and conservative coach. But Andy Robinson recently called for sacrifice from his players and led the way by leaving his family in Bath and working from a lonely apartment in Edinburgh. The Scots will cause an upset in this competition, hopefully not in Dublin.

When Warren Gatland took over as Wales coach in 2008 he led them to the Grand Slam in his first season. As is his wont, he has shot his mouth off and his goal for Wales, like Ireland before them, is of competing with the Tri Nations sides. Last season he erred by seemingly treating the Championship as an extended training camp and he will need to deliver something this season. My old religion teacher would have reminded the Kiwi of the sin of Pride or Hubris, considered the original and most serious of the seven deadly sins. What odds on two opening defeats? The first is entirely possible and the second will have been targeted by Robinson as a possible win. Heading into to the break after round two, England and France could be the only unbeaten teams and Wales and Italy without a point.

Winning the Grand Slam has invariably led to a period of dominance in the championship. France, England and Wales were the pre-eminent countries for the best part of a decade during the glory years of their consecutive Slams.

Even the lone success for Ireland in 1948 led to unprecedented performances for the next five years. Sadly this time around, were Ireland to do the unthinkable, it might be the end rather the beginning of a golden age.

Sunday Independent

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