Gaffney looking to fight fire with fire in running battle
IF the opening weekend of Six Nations action could be described as "functionally satisfying" for Ireland and France, their meeting at the Stade de France on Saturday promises to be far more stirring to the soul.
Both sides cranked through the gears in the first-half, against prospective wooden spoon duellists Italy and Scotland, before freewheeling home in the second but this weekend's encounter will be foot down from first whistle to last.
Last year's Croke Park meeting between these sides produced the best rugby of the championship, with Ireland edging a thrilling contest, scoring three tries to France's two. However, France in Paris are a different proposition entirely and Marc Lievremont's men start favourites for a match that will have a critical bearing on the title destination.
On their last two visits to Paris, Ireland were beaten by ferocious French onslaughts in the first 20 minutes and, yesterday at the squad's base in Killiney, backs coach Alan Gaffney suggested that Ireland's best chance on Saturday is to fight fire with fire.
"We will go out there and attack France, without doubt," insisted Gaffney. "There are opportunities. We're looking at the varying ways they defend and we've got a pretty good handle on what we think they'll do, although, with the French, expect the unexpected. But there are areas we can have a go at irrespective of which defensive pattern they use.
"We weren't trying to hold things back (against Italy). The menu we had for the weekend was the menu we didn't touch upon too much as the game went on. That was for a variety of circumstantial reasons, it wasn't because we were holding back.
"We would have liked to have played the plays and that was one of the disappointing aspects, but it wasn't a lack of intent, we just didn't quite get control of the game."
Ireland name their team this afternoon and injury issues cloud the selection but the gratifying aspect for the management team is the options available to cater for various scenarios. Stephen Ferris looks the most doubtful but, while neither is quite a physical as the Ulster flanker, both Sean O'Brien and Kevin McLaughlin have shown they have what it takes to be a force at this level.
McLaughlin had a decent debut against Italy and has shown his capacity to improve game-on-game with Leinster. His extra inches give him a line-out edge over O'Brien if Ferris is unavailable (particularly with France having a third jumper of Imanol Harinordoquy's quality) but Jamie Heaslip is proving to be a useful ball-winner out of touch for Ireland.
Donncha O'Callaghan, along with Ferris, is "more of a concern" than the other injury-affected players. However, while the ideal scenario may have been to go to Paris with the established second-row combination of O'Callaghan and Paul O'Connell that was so impressive against South Africa last November, you would have no fears over Leo Cullen's capacity to cope. The Leinster captain has the experience, physicality and form for this challenge and he put in an excellent shift against Italy.
Andrew Trimble's hamstring is a factor also but, again, whether it is the rejuvenated Ulsterman or Munster's Keith Earls picked on the left wing, both are excellent options. Rob Kearney was below par by his standards against Italy but Saturday is set up for the Louth full-back to refocus and show why he is rightly regarded as one of the best in the world.
Against South Africa, Declan Kidney opted for a midfield of Jonathan Sexton, Paddy Wallace and Brian O'Driscoll, while last Saturday it was Ronan O'Gara, Gordon D'Arcy and O'Driscoll. All five are in the mix for Saturday as Kidney approaches a match of huge significance, looking to clear psychological hurdles on the road to the 2011 World Cup.
It all adds up to a fascinating contest which should bear little resemblance to some of the turgid fare served up by both combatants last weekend.
"We are not going to kick for the sake of kicking," said Gaffney. "If the opportunity is there, we'll go."