Friday 20 April 2018

'He is a physical specimen' - Rory Best on the imposing new faces as Ireland gear up for Paris test

James Ryan during Ireland rugby squad training at Carton House in Maynooth
James Ryan during Ireland rugby squad training at Carton House in Maynooth
Robbie Henshaw to rise to the challenge. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Forget the Paris of old. This should be a happy hunting ground for Ireland.

History weighs heavily on their shoulders and they have been careful not to let the favourites' tag settle on top of it all week.

The bookies are convinced they'll win, the pundits are universally tipping success. They are the stronger, more experienced team with a better and more established coach who has gone with a bold selection.

And yet, the Stade de France looms large in the equation.

Like the Parc des Princes before it, the St Denis venue exists in a dark place in the Irish psyche.

Although the image of a young Brian O'Driscoll comes to mind, so too does Thierry Henry and any one of the countless routine hammerings the rugby team endured on French soil over the years.

That history should help ward off a repeat of last year's disastrous start against Scotland when all of Ireland's hopes and dreams went out the window thanks to a sluggish start.

They are fully aware that the tournament opens up for them if they win this evening, even if the words Grand and Slam have been banned from their lexicon.

One game at a time is the mantra and the one in front of them is eminently winnable.

There is the unknown factor; France have never played under Jacques Brunel and their backline is led by teenager Matthieu Jalibert.

But while much of the focus has centred on why that is a troublesome thing for an analytical coach like Joe Schmidt to assess, think of how the French must be doing as they cobble together a game-plan from the ruins of a disastrous 12 months.

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Their last win came against Wales on the final day of last year's tournament and their most recent outing saw them narrowly avoid defeat against Japan at home.

That draw delivered Guy Noves to the guillotine, opening the door for Brunel to take over.

Experienced, structured but lacking in imagination, the former Italy coach knows the territory and in time will give the men in blue an organisation they've been lacking but this is too soon.

It is up to Ireland to exploit their uncertainty, to place doubt in French minds.

After failing to turn up in Edinburgh last season, there is a determination to hit the ground running and build a score. That game got away from Ireland who chased down a lead, but then let the result slip from their grasp.

They will back their fundamentals, their scrum is strong and lineout on point, while their half-backs are world leaders and their centres are aggressive on both sides of the ball. Out wide, they possess plenty of threat.

The forecast is for rain, but Schmidt's men have the scope to beat teams any which way you please.

The nature of the games between these teams has been ugly in recent seasons and there is no reason to expect anything else.

Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton will control the game, testing the home back-three in the air - in particular Castres full-back Geoffrey Palis who wins his first cap. The newcomer is a skilful runner, but is not known for his aerial prowess.

Defensively, France could follow the All Blacks' lead in trying to negate Andy Farrell's prized line-speed by going around the corner.

To win the game, Ireland must dominate the collisions and not allow the French to build momentum.

Their tight-five will be tasked with the heavy lifting, but their centre partnership of Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki has the capacity to look after itself too.

There is size across the Irish team and they will need to put it to good use.

James Ryan may be new, but his captain joined his coach in backing his physical capacity to cope at this level.

"He is a physical specimen, no doubt," Rory Best said.

"He has a big presence, but the kid is very young, very inexperienced even at provincial level.

"He's not in commanding the changing-room. He's very much, he wants info and he wants to get better. In terms of when something is pointed out to him, he goes and does it. He gets himself in a position to do it well. That's the big thing for him and the younger guys.

"He wants to get better and when they make mistakes, which happens to all of us, but more when you're young, the mistake very rarely happens again, you look at James, you look at Josh (van der Flier), ultimately the big thing is their physical presence is beyond anything that people would have had when I was that sort of age."

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Wicklow’s Josh van der Flier will hopefully see action for Ireland. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Van der Flier's work-rate will be key as Ireland try and pressurise Jalibert on his debut, his selection over Dan Leavy is a pointer to the pace with which Ireland want to play the game.

Nigel Owens will play a role. The referee is less popular in this corner of Europe than in the Anglophile world and brings with him a flair for drama and a desire to let the game flow.

The Irish players will need to watch their Ps and Qs after World Rugby stepped up their stance on back-chat, something that Sexton in particular will have to be mindful of.

While his coach is concerned about the lack of footage of the opposition, Best said it should not be a problem for his team.

"I think because of European rugby now, we're able to get profiles on people, which is important," he said.

"The big thing is how they play as a team. When you look at the team and you look at the caps column, there is a good team but still a lot of inexperience.

"It's how that all combines. For us being first up, we can't really predict that.

"All we can do is plan the best we can for what we feel they're going to deliver and that we look to the individuals. The thing we pride ourselves on is making sure we have our detail nailed on and that we look at the opposition.

"We've done that and between now and kick-off we'll have done that."

After his few days in the spotlight and an uncomfortable press conference yesterday, Best will be happy to get back to the rugby as will the team who have endured a long build-up to the game.

Once the tournament gets up and running, it will roll on and if Ireland can generate momentum with a win this evening then they have the wherewithal to win it outright.

Standing in front of them is a team at the beginning of a rebuilding phase, talking about moving on from the past but still getting to grips with the structures their new coach is imposing.

Ireland must be ruthless in exploiting the doubt that must exist in their minds with a fast, accurate start.

Get ahead, stay ahead and leave with the points. Anything less would be a disastrous under-performance.

Then, the Six Nations becomes Ireland's oyster and the burden of a dreadful history in Paris remains in the past.

Verdict: Ireland

Irish Independent

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