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Hugh Farrelly: If Kidney's men can summon gutsy resolve of Australia victory, fallible hosts could fall


Irelands strength and conditioning coach Bryan Cullen shares a joke with Coach Declan Kidney

Irelands strength and conditioning coach Bryan Cullen shares a joke with Coach Declan Kidney

Irelands strength and conditioning coach Bryan Cullen shares a joke with Coach Declan Kidney

IT is time for Ireland to take a stand.

Since landing the Grand Slam three years ago, the Irish rugby side has failed to kick on and has been defined by its lack of consistency.

There have been some truly outstanding performances against quality opponents (South Africa in 2009, England and Australia in 2011) but also matches squandered that should have been won (Scotland 2010, France 2011, the last two Six Nations meetings with Wales), and an IRB ranking of eighth tells its own story.

The World Cup added to the sense of frustration, Ireland setting themselves up perfectly for a first semi-final only to fail to do themselves justice when that prize was there to be seized.


It means there is a lack of certainty around the squad ahead of tomorrow's showdown in Paris.

Ireland could be blown away by the French, be narrowly beaten or record a seminal victory and, even then, there would be no guarantee they wouldn't mess up against the Scots the following weekend.

Facing the French puts the problem into context. There is the resources issue -- France could lose their starting 15 and still be able to field a team of high international standard, whereas if Ireland were without three or four key players, they would be sunk.

But there is also the issue of definition -- is this a pragmatic Ireland team that squeezes the life out of opponents, as they did to the Wallabies in Auckland, or is it a high-octane outfit that goes out to blitz the opposition as they did to England last March?

The answer lies somewhere in between, but it is hard not to feel jealous of the Welsh in this regard. Their club sides may be defined by underachievement and the haemorrhaging of players to England and France, but when they come together in a red jersey they know exactly what they are at.

Ireland have been consistently successful at club level but struggle to recreate the same assurance in green.

Tomorrow would be the ideal occasion to draw a line in the sand and establish a post-World Cup launchpad that would re-energise Declan Kidney's tenure, set up a tilt at the championship and provide a sense of purpose ahead of the daunting three-Test assignment in New Zealand this summer.

Even without their injured figurehead and inspiration Brian O'Driscoll, this Irish side undoubtedly has the capacity to make such a statement tomorrow, but it will require a focus in key areas and France displaying further signs of the vulnerabilities the Scots nearly exploited in Murrayfield.

Be the pace-makers

History has proven that teams who rattle the French do so with a game plan based around speed and intensity of thought and action.

It is how Ireland went about their business when they last won in Paris in 2000, with the overall intention of not allowing the home side to settle.

Last weekend's contrast between the first and second halves showed how much more formidable a proposition the Irish are when they are working with quick possession.

True, Italian resistance was in swift decline when Ireland began to motor, but as soon as the fast ruck ball began to flow, the Irish seemed to be awash with options.

It places a huge emphasis on Ireland's back-row to prove they are not the unbalanced unit they have been made out to be and can combine both to provide and carry swift possession.

It is not just ruck ball -- quick line-outs, tap-and-goes and running back the right possession can all be used to unsettle the French and wrest initiative

There is also an overwhelming need to slow down France's ball. Even when they were struggling last weekend, the pace and ferocity of the French clean-outs gave them quality possession and prevented any sense of panic setting in.

When push

comes to shove

The dominance of the French scrum was the foundation of last week's victory, allowing then to establish a firm foundation when the Scots were threatening to run amok.

They fully expect to do the same against the Irish and it has long been a French tactic to gain an early psychological edge through sheer ferocity at scrum-time.

However, while that has worked consistently against Ireland down through the years, this Irish scrum is a different animal, carrying arguably the best scrummaging front-row into Paris since Ray McLoughlin, Ken Kennedy and Sean Lynch helped inspire victory at the Stade Colombes in 1972.

Cian Healy is improving at a rapid rate while Rory Best and Mike Ross are superb technicians with the power to back it up.

Figuring out how to prevent France from getting that early advantage will have been a major focus under scrum guru Greg Feek this week and, while expecting Ireland to completely dominate may be unrealistic, they have the motivation and ability to at least achieve parity and establish a platform.

The frequency of scrums may be on the slide in the modern game but if the Irish do manage that, they would create their own psychological boost that would filter throughout the team.

Win the land war

A major theme in the analysis of Ireland's two matches in the Six Nations so far has been the need to play the game in the opposition's territory.

Failure to do so consistently ceded advantage to Wales and Italy at various stages of those encounters and, against the French, could be calamitous.

It places the onus on accurate kicking out of hand by the half-backs, Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton, and also by Rob Kearney from the back. Precision is especially important when you are up against a back three with the supreme counter-attacking calibre of Clement Poitrenaud, Vincent Clerc and Julien Malzieu.

Any loose kicks to these three invites severe punishment and Ireland's kick-chase needs to be as committed as it is claustrophobic.

Mind the gap

A lack of aggression and line speed in defence invited the Welsh on in the opening game and was a major contributory factor in that demoralising reverse.

It was much improved against Italy, but that is qualified by the fact the Italian backline would struggle to break down even an average Pro12 outfit.

The key is communication and intelligent aggression -- knowing where your team-mates are, who to hit, when to hit and following through when you do.

As Leinster coach Joe Schmidt has pointed out, a unity of purpose is especially crucial against the likes of Poitrenaud and new centre sensation Wesley Fofana.

Their angles of running and ability to change direction at pace mean Ireland must not give them a sniff of a hole to surge into.

Malzieu and Aurelien Rougerie will test Irish resolve on direct, physical runs also and Gordon D'Arcy, after a very good performance last week, will not have forgotten Rougerie's decisive burst last year.

History boys

The pressures of past failures can work in two ways -- they can inhibit teams into a fatalistic approach revolving around expectation of 'inevitable' defeat, or inspire them to write their names into history.

Ireland's well-documented record of one Paris win in 40 years (or two in 60 if you want to stretch it out) has hung over recent expeditions, and going up against a side that reached a World Cup final they deserved to win may not look like the best time to storm the Hall of Fame.

But, maybe it is. While there is growing optimism that Ireland can give a good account of themselves tomorrow, the vast majority do not give Ireland a prayer of winning.

So, what better opportunity to take that stand and draw on the same reserves of resolve, frustration and bitterness that served Ireland so well against Australia last September?

France are not as good as they can be made out to be and Ireland are a lot better than many think.

Tomorrow might just prove as much.

Verdict: Ireland

Irish Independent