Thursday 26 April 2018

Peter Bills: French to get physical

Peter Bills

Home comforts will be crucial for France says Peter Bills, as they base campaign on physical might

Paul Getty's formula for success was rise early, work late and strike oil. The latter capacity being denied to the likes of Declan Kidney, Marc Lievremont, Martin Johnson and their fellow Six Nations coaches, it will be instructive to determine the methods each of the countries employ as they prepare for this season's tournament.

2010? What a difference a century of rugby warfare makes. 100 years ago, France were making their debut in the old Five Nations: played four, lost four was their haul from the 1910 season.

England and Ireland were set to fight out a thrilling 0-0 draw on a slightly improvised cabbage patch in south-west London that was to become known as Twickenham.

Meanwhile, at the old Parc des Princes in Paris, an Ireland team containing three Old Wesley men beat France 8-3 in front of a crowd of 10,000 -- on a Monday.

For Ireland, Paris is very likely to hold the key to the 2010 championship. In one sense, it is daft to single out any game as the defining contest of any team's season. A tournament which has become a by-word for upsets and lurching, unpredictable outcomes is surely impossible to predict.

But one country is fuelled with a surging momentum as the tournament begins. Ireland are reigning Grand Slam champions and, with that monkey at last lifted from their shoulders, should play with a freer spirit, a less fearful edge than was apparent at times last year as they sought to end 61 years of frustration.

If it took them that long to gain a second Grand Slam, then it might only be 12 months before they celebrate another and their first ever back-to-back Slams. Paris, however, is surely the key.


Ireland begin the tournament in fine fettle. The pride of being reigning champions is fortified by the continuing exploits of Leinster and Munster, not to mention Ulster, in Europe. Ireland's best players have become accustomed to winning, a handy factor as the Six Nations begins.

Moreover, Kidney's men play three of their five matches in Dublin, a significant advantage. In addition, they will confront an England side still little more than a twinkle in the eye of its beholder, Martin Johnson.

Jonny Wilkinson or Toby Flood in the crucial No 10 role -- what sort of game do England wish to play? Will Steve Borthwick be dumped as captain? Who fills the problematic No 12 and No 13 jerseys?

We need not go on. In other words, England have more questions about them than the game of Trivial Pursuit.

Likewise Wales, who foundered badly in the autumn internationals and have clear deficiencies. For sure, Lee Byrne will bring welcome class upon his return at full-back.

Can Ryan Jones regain the inspirational leadership, not to mention peerless form that was so instrumental in Wales' last Grand Slam, in 2008?

Wales are always significant foes, as Ireland well know. But Warren Gatland is rebuilding and this is a Welsh outfit of largely unknown potential, albeit possibly with a Lions Test front row.

They have some potential and Gatland's coaching skills will be critical. If he can inject the gameplan with which Wales so troubled southern hemisphere opposition in the autumn internationals of 2008 -- a style rich in fluidity and movement allied to off-loading in the tackle so as to ensure continuity -- they may regain their threat.

Scotland, under the nuggety Andy Robinson, their English coach, will be obdurate opponents. His side's meeting in Edinburgh with England, by whose hand he suffered a similar fate to Caesar, will carry a sub-plot worthy of any Roman intrigue. Unless England are firmly on their game and enjoying the benefit of some flow and confidence within their play, that could be one of their trickiest encounters of the season.

As ever, Murrayfield will bristle with hostility at the arrival of the hated Sassenachs.

But again, Paris looms large. England must go there on the final weekend of the championship, an extremely difficult task hardly made easier by French memories of the 34-10 thrashing they suffered at Twickenham last year.

What of Italy, shrewdly prepared and coached by the South African Nick Mallett, but sadly denuded of true international class men, especially with their captain and No 8 Sergio Parisse missing the whole season with a knee injury?

The zenith of Italy's ambitions, especially with three of their five matches away from home, will be to beat Scotland in Rome. Badly short of real quality in both of the key half-back roles, if they fail in that task, a second successive whitewash looms.

Mallett knows he is trying to build palaces with inferior tools. That is his task and he is handsomely rewarded for his efforts. But confidence will begin to drain away from the Azzurri if they lose all five matches once again. It is a tournament of unpredictable twists and turns but it's scarcely believable that Italy could topple any of their opponents, with the single exception of the Scots.

What was that about the importance of Paris? The French will play three of their five games in their capital, an important statistic for a people who start to get homesick on the runway at Charles de Gaulle airport.

Better still, their away games are in Scotland and Wales. It is true, they have stumbled on forays to either land in past years but Paris, and the opportunity it will afford for momentum, surely holds the key.

It is my belief that the French will base their campaign, a la Napoleon, on physical might. Expect them to pick a massively physical pack of forwards, full of the likes of Nicolas Mas, William Servat, Romain Millo-Chluski and a huge back row in Louis Picamoles at No 8 with captain Thierry (no, not that one) Dusautoir and Imanol Harinordoquy on the flanks. Behind them, they will use Mathieu Bastareaud as a battering-ram in midfield to get them over the gain-line. It may not be pretty but it could be effective.

But what to expect of the French overall? Well, a small example betrays the difficulty of strangers purveying this particular foreign field. In a recent edition of 'Midi Olympique', the French bi-weekly newspaper, a list of players was seeded into sections for Lievremont's French squad -- 'Les Certains', 'Les Probables' and 'Les Possibles'.

Firmly placed in 'Les Certains' was Toulouse flyer Maxime Medard and in 'Les Probables' was his club colleague Frederic Michalak. Alas, neither made the national coach's squad of 30 announced a day or two later. Now if the French themselves don't know what on earth to expect, what chance us onlookers, still mystified as we are by their penchant for garlic, frogs' legs and suspender belts?

By great and glorious contrast, one country offers an impressively solid base, a calm, ready mentality that is the envy of all others. Ireland's settled side is such that barely a couple of positions will warrant much debate.

Not only is there (well, should be) the inner belief coursing through their veins courtesy of a Grand Slam triumph last time out. Since then, Leinster won the Heineken Cup, several Irish players -- such as Jamie Heaslip, Tommy Bowe, Stephen Ferris and Keith Earls -- made significant progress on the Lions tour; others selected for it but denied the trip by injury -- Jerry Flannery and Tomas O'Leary -- will be eager to remind us what the Lions missed by their absence.

The back line is a cornucopia of pace and talent, from the counter-attacking Rob Kearney at full-back to the speed of Bowe and Earls on the wings, with Brian O'Driscoll's genius and Paddy Wallace's creativity in midfield. Even better, Ronan O'Gara must now either play out of his skin or expect Jonathan Sexton to snatch his place. Kidney is a blessed man.

The scrummage is Ireland's Achilles heel, but the loss through injury of tough loose-head prop Fabien Barcella is a significant blow to the French. And besides, how long have we been saying Ireland have a weak scrum and it will be their undoing? All the way to last season's Grand Slam, is the answer.

The French will be physical and tough, especially in Paris. But it could all come down to this: do the Irish truly believe they can win another Grand Slam?

They should, but deep down, are they mentally satisfied with just one? If their desire goes as deep this year as last, I think they can do it -- provided they can get past the French in their own capital.

People have celebrated or drowned their sorrows in Paris for centuries. Which will it be for Ireland?

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport