Wednesday 13 December 2017

Tony Ward: Strongest 23 we've fielded in a long time should have enough to see off French

Joe Schmidt makes a point to the Irish players during the captain's run at the Aviva Stadium Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt makes a point to the Irish players during the captain's run at the Aviva Stadium Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

I hope I am wrong, but for all the talk of a new attacking direction for French rugby under Guy Noves, I just don't see it. I will head to the Aviva today on the back of two decent Gallic performances hoping for the best but fearing the worst.

If anything beyond brain-dead body bashing does materialise, then I will sign up to the Noves fan club with immediate effect.

In the corresponding game two years ago we won 18-11 - five penalties from Johnny Sexton plus one from Ian Madigan to two penalties and a lone French try in response.

It was the match where Jamie Heaslip shipped a knee in the back from Pascal Pape and where man of the match Sexton, who was tactically superb, clashed heads (non-maliciously) with Mathieu Bastareaud.

That was only our fourth win over Les Bleus in the last 18 attempts on home soil. So much for the 'bad travellers' theory. Yet despite coming out on top, I know I wasn't alone in coming away from the Aviva that day depressed.

I hope Noves' squad watched Monaco and Manchester City hark back to football's days of yore with a festival of all-out attacking on Tuesday.

Yes, the defending was atrocious but the spectacle was magic.

Can what we witnessed at the Etihad be repeated in international rugby? Of course it can if the will is there.

The last day of that 2015 Six Nations was unreal. There was a unique set of circumstances, with Ireland, England and Wales needing maximum tries and points from their respective games against Scotland, France and Italy.

What that extraordinary finale showed is that rugby still has the potential to provide an exciting running spectacle.

And as New Zealand have continued to demonstrate in this game of decreasing space, winning and invention are not mutually exclusive.

I dread another war of attrition today. Winning ugly would compensate for some people, but not for me.

Beating New Zealand (in particular) and Australia back in the autumn was exhilarating, not only in terms of the achievement but also the manner of the victories, in two very different sets of circumstances.

Joe Schmidt has tweaked and broadened our style significantly since the World Cup, and while needs must in terms of meeting brute force with the same ingredients, there are definite signs of a growing emphasis on attacking with greater width and through the hand.

I am not suggesting we fail to earn that all-important right to move it wide but while still short on Denis Hickie-like finishing gas behind the scrum, we are moving towards a lock-picking rather than door-breaking phase in this group's development.

For both sides, today's result could pretty much make or break this Six Nations campaign. A win will provide vital momentum going into the final two games.

While the French have failed to finish in the top half of the table (a remarkable statistic) over the last five years, Ireland have only once (in 2013) ended up outside the top three. Psychologically the landscape has changed.

No-one in the Ireland camp will be taking Les Bleus for granted, but equally if Murrayfield was the blip we think it was and the Autumn series a better indication as to where we stand, then winning today is essential. Especially with the most difficult segment of the season - Wales away and England at home - still to come.

Schmidt has picked a squad to win in a variety of ways, as we showed in Chicago.

You couldn't be certain what Ireland's game-plan will be this afternoon. That is the substantial progress being made.

I suspect there will be a little bit of everything, from challenging in the air, to turning the French wings, to attacking the visitors in the area in which they are traditionally strongest - the scrum - to making the most of what I believe to be the best back-row in the competition.

Apart from lacking out-and-out pace down the flanks, we field a footballing three-quarter line that can ask serious questions of any defence.

Aside from Jared Payne, who is still a significant loss, Jordi Murphy and Josh van der Flier, Schmidt is picking from a full hand.

He may lack the luxury of an out-and-out openside a la Van der Flier or Dan Leavy on the bench, but if there is a better back-row combination than CJ Stander, Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip, with Peter O'Mahony in reserve (and Iain Henderson no slouch when wearing No 6 too) then I don't know it.

The French have named a juggernaut pack, with Louis Picamoles their Stander, O'Brien and Heaslip rolled into one. Such is his influence that if you stop him, you stop France playing front-foot rugby.

We have that capacity, with as strong a 23 as we have put together for some considerable time; I have faith in the developing Niall Scannell, John Ryan, Kieran Marmion and Paddy Jackson.

It is good too to see Andrew Trimble back and hungry for involvement, while the introduction of Cian Healy, Henderson, probably O'Mahony too around the hour could be decisive.

Maybe I am seeking the sun, moon and stars but give me an Irish win the Chicago way. Ireland by six.

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