Sunday 17 December 2017

There will be blood

Art of positive thinking vital for french dissection

Eddie O'Sullivan

Three Paris wins in nearly 60 years of rugby all but suggests that Irish tricolours should fly at half-mast in St Denis today. It's an abysmal record that brings to mind the words of that great old American golf icon, Deane Beman. "If you think you can or if you think you can't -- you're right!" he said many moons ago.

Far too many Irish teams have gone to Paris probably thinking they couldn't win.

And, of course, they didn't.

Today's game will be fought in the mind, then, every bit as much as on the Stade de France pitch. For years, Irish teams made the biennial trek to France in the springtime with a kind of unspoken ambition just to keep the scoreline respectable. Which, clearly, was no ambition at all.

So, there have been a share of "moral victories," gallant Ireland somehow restricting the flair and panache of their hosts to something short of slaughter. Year after year, Paris just had a history of getting under the Irish skin, whether it be the old Stade Colombes, the tight Parc des Princes or today's wonderful Stade de France.

We are all too familiar with those sun-drenched afternoons, when every French pass sticks and the crowd responds, as if in symphony with the brass bands and in synch with the strutting cockerels. It's not a place for the fainthearted.

The current venue is, my opinion, the most intimidating. A towering, metallic saucer with almost vertical stands that rise on all sides and, down below, one of the fastest rugby surfaces in the world. When I think of it, I see a coliseum.


The team bus hardly changes gear as it sweeps down the concrete ramp, leading into the bowels of the stadium. And, from the bus, it's a short walk to the eerie silence of a sound-proofed changing room.

That room is a strange place to be on a Six Nations afternoon. You feel oddly cocooned in there, sealed away from the frenzy that awaits, just a thirty-second walk away.

When the referee calls "time to go," everything changes. You step out into the tunnel and turn right, to stand shoulder-to- shoulder with your direct opponent. No one makes eye contact now. People just roll their necks and glower, like prize fighters at the ring apron. Then there is maybe a walk of 50 paces into direct sunlight.

The energy that hits you is extraordinary. As the players break into a run and the fireworks explode, you get the sense of watching gladiators enter the Circus Maximus. The desire to intimidate is palpable. And it must be met head-on.

Today, Ireland can do that. Absolutely, unequivocally. Because Stade de France holds no secrets for this Irish team.

In 2006 and again in '08, we went there intent on taking the French out of their comfort zone. Unfortunately, our bravery was undermined by a high error-count. It maybe looked at times as if we were intent on committing hara-kiri, particularly in the first 50 minutes or so in '06, when Les Bleus stretched away into a 43-3 lead, crossing for six tries in the process.

But, if you believe in something, you have to have the courage of your convictions. And, on that particular day, we did. We kept attacking when many probably thought a 60-point plus defeat was looming.

And France would end that game on the ropes as we came storming back, scoring 28 unanswered points.

Actually, in both '06 and '08, the term "saved by the bell" pretty much summed up the French victories. Their manager, Joe Maso, admitted as much on each occasion.

And that's a memory this Irish team needs to be tapping into today. The memory of how, on their last two Six Nations visits to Paris, they had the French in serious distress. Most of today's XV will have played in one, if not both of those games. They should know then that they have nothing to fear here.

Remember, too, there has been a paradigm shift in European rugby in recent years. Ireland are the Grand Slam champions; Leinster are champions of Europe. Irish teams have won three of the last four Heineken Cups. If anything, we now have a serious claim on the title traditionally associated with France. Aristocrats of European rugby? Maybe it's time the French began to worry about Ireland.

Don't doubt for a second that they do.

Marc Lievremont knows that defeat today will, not alone preclude them from winning a Grand Slam, but probably put an end to their chances of winning the Championship too. This game IS the big one in this year's Six Nations Championship and France will understand that.

Gone are the days of the French and England fighting it out for every Championship, the rest of us playing the part of "also-rans." That era belongs to the dim and distant past now. In the history of the Six Nations, Ireland and France have been the most consistent teams, winning considerably more games than anybody else.

There is no doubting the pressure on Lievremont this year. I always feel that blaming the referee is never a good sign of where a coach's head is at and, even if Lievremont was right about Nigel Owens at Murrayfield, it's very early in the Championship for him to be playing that particular card.

The French public has watched him tinker through two Six Nations campaigns and will feel that the time has arrived for this team to actually win something.

Their performance against Scotland was hardly vintage France. They missed 15 tackles and gave up numerous line breaks against one of the most toothless attacks in the tournament. Those are statistics that will drop them into deep, deep trouble if repeated against a team of Ireland's quality. Frankly, if Ireland get even half of the opportunities given to the Scots last weekend, there will be blood on the walls in Paris today.

No doubt, the French will have spent the week working hard on defensive adjustments. They may even change their system, given the way Mathieu Bastareaud struggled with operating the blitz defence. Then again, changing defensive systems in mid-stream is about as risky as changing horses.

The injuries to Rougerie, Ducalon and Fall shouldn't unhinge them to any great degree, given the depth of talent at their disposal. Yet, that doesn't mean it won't plant just the tiniest seed of doubt in French minds.

And that, as I said, is where this game will be won ... the top four inches.

I'm not surprised Declan has gone with Ronan O'Gara at out-half. He was on the team that won there in 2000 and he played in those roller-coaster games of '06 and '08 too. He flew out of Paris on both those occasions knowing that we had left a Test win behind us. Ronan will also, I don't doubt, be mindful of the abysmal treatment he endured from sections of the French media during the '07 World Cup.

No one will be more motivated today than the Irish No 10 to see that there are no "out of jail cards" for France this time.

I believe there has never been a better time for Ireland to go to Paris, so long as we go with the courage of our convictions. This team can be trusted to do that.

And if you think you can...

Irish Independent

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