Monday 22 January 2018

The big debate: Is beating France still a big deal?

Joe Schmidt at Ireland training yesterday
Joe Schmidt at Ireland training yesterday

David Kelly and Ruaidhri O'Connor

History demands that Ireland treat French with the utmost respect, writes David Kelly.

Perhaps it is a generational thing and nothing else matters as much as it used to.

A world where fake news challenges truth, virtual pokes supersede real-life hugs and the next moment is guaranteed to be better than this one, even though you haven't experienced it yet.

And forget the last moment. History is bunk.

Perspective is even bunk-er (if we can have fake news, we can have fake words, too).

Events are minimised - or maximised - out of all proportion to their importance. From death to life, and every scintilla of reality (show) in between, so often it is hard to tell the difference between what is special and what isn't. The visceral is being eviscerated.

And so to the thinly-veiled suggestion that beating France may not be such a big deal at all.

A quick history lesson should swiftly upbraid any sense of complacency that this is a fixture whose fizz has suddenly been rendered flat by lazy ennui. And it is a history not entirely swamped with cobwebs.

Firstly, a broad sweep of the context in which these sides meet.

Condescension Ireland would have to win every contest between the countries for perhaps the next 25 years, give or take a World Cup meeting or two, merely to draw level in the head-to-head score.

Hardly a position from which to countenance condescension.

Quite apart from England's perspective - not to mention New Zealand's age-old peculiar petrification when confronted by a blue shirt - France have always stirred an irrational fear within Irish hearts.

And it is not merely through the act of thumbing through the pages of history, and recalling the glorious names of Rives and Fouroux, Blanco and Lafond, do the French send shivers down Irish spines.

Even if their glory days in this competition are in the rear view mirror - those six titles in the 1980s - they have still regularly managed to thwart Ireland's ambitions in the professional era. Who can forget ten years ago in Croke Park when they thwarted an almost certain Grand Slam, one of two potential additions to the sole 2009 clean sweep that Ireland should have won this century?

In 2004, France were also Ireland's only conquerors, amidst a period which also included a World Cup dominance that bordered on the gruesome, encompassing a hat-trick of wins.

After beating them in 2003, Ireland lost to France seven times in a row; as Eddie O'Sullivan's side accumulated Triple Crowns, the distant peak of a Grand Slam would always remain beyond them because of French dominance.

Some will point to recent history as reversing that within the fixture but even when Ireland clinched the Championship in Paris in 2014 - only when a marginal forward pass denied France a potential late try - it marked just their second win in nearly half a century of attempts there.

France still lead Ireland 9-6 since Five Nations became Six and they have collected five more victories than the home side in Dublin.

True, there is less of a fear factor prevalent these days, stemming initially from Munster's European breakthrough in France during the late 1990s, then thrillingly forged when Brian O'Driscoll scored his famous hat-trick. But the sight of the cockerel still demands utter Irish respect.

This was evidenced in their maiden World Cup victory against them in 2015 which was achieved with such ceaseless brutality that, given the carnage in terms of injury, was almost a pyrrhic success given the calamitous cave-in to Argentina thereafter. That France have failed to win a title since 2010 and have become almost regular occupants of the bottom half of the table should ensure that Ireland become even more energised by the fixture, not less.

In a week when Ian Madigan's nightmare stint in France appears to be nearing an end-game, it is vital that Ireland continue to demonstrate that their system, with its pyramid supporting the paramount position of the international side, is the best in the business.

Narrowing it all down, though, scrubbing all history and merely focusing on the present, beating France matters now because it is the key to Ireland's Championship hopes.

Lose and their title hopes disappear. Viewed through this prism, beating France matters now more than ever.

 

If they want to be among the best, Ireland should be routinely beating France, says Ruaidhri O’Connor

Put yourself in Garry Ringrose's shoes. Just turned 22, your Six Nations memory extends back 10 years to the 2007 tournament and Ireland's big win over England. You have taken in the Championship since as a viewer and then a close observer as a member of the wider training squad and, most recently, as the starting outside centre.

Would you fear France?

Consider that since Ringrose's first memory of watching a Six Nations game, the two countries have met competitively 11 times, with an average scoreline of 19-17 in France's favour.

In World Cup games, it's 1-1, in the Six Nations it's Ireland three wins, France four and two draws. It's hardly formidable.

Since the 2011 Championship when they finished second and reached the World Cup final, Les Bleus have been in Six Nations free fall, winning 10 games out of a possible 30, scoring an average of 15 points a game and conceding an average of 16. They've won just three times away from home, twice in Scotland and once in Italy, and have failed to beat Wales at all.

During that time, Ireland have won two titles while the French have never finished above fourth.

While the older members of the squad like Rory Best, Jamie Heaslip and Johnny Sexton will remember a time when Ireland won once against France between 1975 and 2000 and the average margin between the teams was 16 points in the French favour, the younger players have no such scars.

A run of results like that can seep into a psyche and even throughout the 'Golden Generation' years the French sustained some of the standards of their predecessors. Wins in this fixture during the 2000s were to be cherished.

Now, routinely battered by their domestic schedule, Saturday's visitors are not the force of old.

Their coach, the legendary Guy Noves, is a man manager in the land of brilliant tacticians, while their squad is a collection of talented players who are improving as a unit but they still look off the pace.

They can cause problems for good teams, but they have struggled to get the job done.

The Top 14 is punching way below its weight on the European stage this season and there has been little to fear from an Irish perspective in France this season. In 2016, Ireland made their first moves towards the 2019 World Cup by completing a southern hemisphere triple crown for the first time.

By beating New Zealand in Chicago, Joe Schmidt's men put the world on notice that despite a disappointing quarter-final exit at the hands of Argentina in 2015 and a number of high-profile retirements, this is a team that can be considered a force.

At the moment, Schmidt's side sit fourth in the World Rugby rankings below New Zealand, England and Australia.

Staying there at the end of the Six Nations would strengthen their claim of being an elite team, ensuring their place as top seeds in Japan.

France, meanwhile, are under threat of dropping out of the world's top eight and into the third seeding places if things don't go right in the coming weeks.

Their narrow victory over Scotland eased their fears, but they are still looking over their shoulders.

All week, Ireland will understandably talk up Saturday's opponents, pin-pointing their strongest players, their formidable scrum and their ability to win one-on-one collisions.

Yet the bookmakers are convinced that this will be a straightforward encounter. France are 5/2 to win in Dublin for the first time since 2011, while the spread is seven points in Ireland's favour.

For all that the cliché of France being unpredictable exists, Ireland know exactly what to expect.

They will look to dominate the set-piece, win their collisions and offload out of contact where possible. They will look to target Johnny Sexton and throw Conor Murray off his game.

In a different era, the arrival of the French with their brass bands and cockerels heralded a hellish afternoon but those days are long gone.

Ireland should expect to beat France. Ireland should beat France. There's nothing to fear this week.

Irish Independent

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