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Brendan Fanning: Miracle or massacre lurks in Paris spring


Ireland captain Paul O' Connell , left, and Tom Court walk down the players' tunnel during the captain' s run ahead of their RBS Six Nations Championship refixture against France

Ireland captain Paul O' Connell , left, and Tom Court walk down the players' tunnel during the captain' s run ahead of their RBS Six Nations Championship refixture against France

Ireland captain Paul O' Connell , left, and Tom Court walk down the players' tunnel during the captain' s run ahead of their RBS Six Nations Championship refixture against France

Le massacre du printemps. In the toing and froing that preceded the curtain falling in Paris three weeks ago, you wonder did Philippe Saint-Andre think that swapping a frozen winter for a balmy spring setting would not be so bad after all.

For sure his opposite number Declan Kidney, who was animated in pointing out to referee Dave Pearson the risks to the safety of his players, was happy enough to get out of there quick time.

And given that Kidney is a man who can think on his feet, we have to presume that he calculated the downside of coming back to Paris when the French like it best.

Le massacre du printemps, incidentally, was a headline from L'Equipe on the morning of the 1992 fixture in the old Parc des Princes, where Ireland managed never to win -- against France or Argentina. Philippe Saint-Andre was on the wing that day when the home team romped home 44-12.

For optimum effect we fiddle around with the stats from Ireland's record in Paris, but the one that best illustrates the theme is that we have won two of our last 31 games there. You could argue that Scotland's return of 2/33 in Twickenham is worse, but at least that run includes four draws. We never got that comfort. And our 13-game stretch from 1974 to '98 is a standalone for the worst championship run of anyone in one city.

Jonny Sexton was 14 for the second of those Ireland victories, in 2000. Coincidentally, his father Jerry, who would play scrumhalf on the first Irish schools team, was the same age for the first, in 1972. Perhaps we should be less hung up on whether the fixture is in winter or spring and be more concerned with the awfulness of the sequence itself.

You'd think the graph would have levelled out a bit since Munster and Leinster started going over there in the Heineken Cup and routinely coming back with mission accomplished. Munster led the charge when beating Colomiers in 1999; Leinster in Montferrand in 2002. Yet in the way that we struggle to transfer winning form from provincial to Test level, so the nightmares in Paris recur. People forget that our top two provinces often go into European battle with virtually Test-strength teams, against opponents who are some distance from that.

A key factor is simply that France are better than us. They were ropey enough up until 1960, but thereafter they have utterly dominated the relationship. Despite their many idiosyncrasies, and light-touch approach to sports science, from their comparatively vast professional network, France have produced teams to consistently keep us in our place.

"It has to stop at some time, you know," Mike Ross says, sounding more hopeful than confident. "I mean, if you look at the team this year, Conor Murray hasn't started there before -- there's a few guys who haven't been in that environment, myself included. I'd like my debut at the Stade de France to be a good one. I think we're in a good place to do it. I genuinely do, I'm not just saying that."

Well, if Ireland are to do it then it will involve a huge contribution from their tighthead. If you want to compare where the power will come from this afternoon, then look at what Ross faces. The front row replacements Saint-Andre will roll off the bench for the last half hour are William Servat and Vincent Debaty. Right on the 50-minute mark in Murrayfield last Sunday, the two boys trundled on and the scrummaging pain for what was a heavier Scotland pack grew more acute.

Excluding resets, there were 13 scrums in that match, enough to make power in that phase a real issue. Ireland have Seán Cronin -- quick and explosive but a mile off the scrummaging input of Servat, who is a legend in the game, and Tom Court, who somehow was awarded a try last weekend against Italy for grounding the ball short of the line. If there is to be an away win then it won't come from springers turning the contest around up front.

The recurring theme in this fixture is that Ireland need to start well, be in the hunt at half-time, and not cough up an early score in the second half. The role of Jonny Sexton in this is massive. The outhalf is one of those Ross is talking about when he mentions those who are not scarred from previous defeats in Paris. Sexton only got 12 minutes pitch time there two seasons ago when himself and Eoin Reddan arrived to a party that had already broken up, with France leading 30-10. He came away thinking it was a great spot.

Significantly, he didn't have to address any pressure kicks. This afternoon he won't just have to pick off three points any time Dave Pearson opens that door, but he'll have to cope when France fill the backfield and Ireland need to run the right play to expose that, as well as getting decent territory when they leave themselves open at the back.

It was noticeable in Murrayfield how Scotland made capital around the breakdown by attacking the area around the first French defender. A week is a long time in analysis-land however. You wouldn't bank on Ireland being able to push the same button today. Italy, for example, closed exactly the same door in the seven days between playing France and coming to Dublin. For the French to seal that gap though you'd hope it will open another one further out. Again, Sexton needs to be on his game to make the most of that space when it appears.

"They got in behind them in a couple of different areas, mixed the game up quite well," he says of the Scots. "Then they got ahead in the

second half again. They probably just have to learn from that game. If you get on top you have to keep playing, you can't sit back and try to defend the French for 30 minutes. We have to keep going at them with the ball. Scotland turned one over when it looked like they were going to go in at half-time with a good lead, but 30 seconds later they're under their own posts. It's vital we take sensible decisions not to gift them turnovers because they're lethal off them."

Thankfully, Ireland are beginning to look more dangerous where it counts most: the opposition 22. Twice in this campaign Tommy Bowe has been the beneficiary of patient play where the ball was worked into space for him to score. On both of those plays Sexton got it just right, from the call to the execution. He knows that if he gets it wrong it could easily finish 80 metres back down the field. Carving out these situations is something they weren't doing in the World Cup.

You'll know that if they repeat the trick for a third time then they are making real progress, in which case the challenge will be to pick the right team and cope with a six-day turnaround to face what is a very fit Scotland team. As ever, the 2000 contest is the reference point now for Irish trips to Paris.

"I remember watching the game," Sexton says. "I'd say it was the game that changed the standards Irish young people expected of themselves. We've seen Brian (O'Driscoll), Paul (O'Connell), these guys, beat England, France; whereas when we were young we didn't see that. We almost expected Ireland to lose to France or England, but now those guys have changed it around a bit where we do expect to win."

Delivering on that would have subeditors substituting miracle for massacre in their springtime headlines.

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