Perhaps it's appropriate that the Republic of Ireland have spent this week battling atrocious conditions on the training ground. The key to negotiating the biggest two matches of most of their lives will be their ability to weather a storm.
France are in town and, boy, is it box office. This World Cup play-off has an allure which extends far beyond the two nations involved. It's easy to see why the plot is absorbing. The wily old fox that is Giovanni Trapattoni plotting the downfall of an almighty force that has arrived at this juncture because they are not unstoppable.
FIFA are apprehensive at the prospect of a World Cup without France, who will dismiss their manager and possibly even their association's CEO if they fail. The FAI, mired in financial difficulty, really cannot afford to miss out on the jamboree in South Africa. Only one protagonist can play the get out of jail card. A variety of the world's media crammed into a small room in Malahide's Grand Hotel yesterday, with 16 camera crews fighting for the best view in the sweatbox. Trapattoni arrived late, but without fluster. The circus is nothing new to him. He needs his players to be similarly relaxed this evening. “Keep a cool head,” is the mantra du jour.
Beneath the calm exterior, however, must rest the knowledge that the next 180 minutes will test everything he has stood for since he strolled into our lives 18 months ago. The team that await Les Bleus will operate the system and contain the personnel that the 70-year-old has championed.
Aside from choosing between Liam Lawrence and Aiden McGeady, a decision which he will mull overnight, everything is clear in the manager's mind. Individuals like Glenn Whelan, Keith Andrews and Sean St Ledger, mere specks on the radar when France came to Dublin four years ago, must prepare for an excruciating examination.
“In the past, we have said many words about this game,” said Trapattoni, “Now we must put into practice what we have said.
“For us, this is the final of the World Cup. We must believe. We didn't lose in the qualifying group, and we must understand why we achieved those results. It's important that we play with confidence.”
The Republic camp are aware of the vibe emanating from France, a certain fear about the atmosphere they may encounter at Croke Park; it's probably best they don't know how placid it was before the visit of Italy last month.
Skipper Robbie Keane stressed yesterday that Raymond Domenech's side must not be allowed to dictate the game but with the visitors set to deploy a formation which will outnumber Ireland in midfield — in addition to their superior ball retention skills — then it seems inevitable.
Bordeaux playmaker Yoann Gourcuff, supported by Lassana
Diarra and either the doubtful Jeremy Toulalan or Alou Diarra, will have the opportunity to control the tempo like Andrea Pirlo did last month.
The reflections on the Italy game have stressed the need to learn the lesson from the frenetic conclusion where the Republic stole the lead and then promptly gave it straight back. Yet what tonight's hosts really need to heed is the danger of conceding too much ground to a side who may lack the collective strength of Italy, but have superior attacking options.
“We're not going to be sitting back,” asserted Keane, “We have to get a hold on the game. It's important that we get right up for it and get excited, but it's also important to be calm and don't do anything stupid either, something we would probably regret.”
The reference to maintaining control stems from the French paranoia about the Irish approach. They expect provocation, and fear cynicism from the hosts. With all four of Domenech's preferred defenders one caution away from missing next Wednesday the fear is possibly understandable.
“We won't be going out to get anyone booked,” retorted Keane, “But it's up to myself and Kevin [Doyle] to unsettle them as much as we can.”
Trapattoni diplomatically sang from the same hymn sheet yet when he consistently speaks of the ‘little details' that his side need to improve upon, gamesmanship is one of the headings.
In the politest terms possible, he has previously bemoaned his team's inability to time waste and perform all the niggly, clever tactics that conform to the stereotype of an Italian side. Faced with an opposition walking a tightrope and vulnerable on set-pieces, it's understandable that he would be tempted to select both wingers — the counterpoint is that Lawrence performed his defensive duties admirably enough against the Italians, neutralising the threat of Fabio Grosso. Selecting Lawrence would be a statement of intent with respect to curbing Patrice Evra.
And that's the dilemma here. The Republic’s greatest difficulty in recent years has been a collective tendency to shoot themselves in the foot regardless of the opposition. Now, as they stand on the threshold of immortality, it's a question of whether their game plan is based around containing France, or whether Trapattoni reckons his team are capable of unsettling them anyway. His final call on the right wing debate will provide the answer.
“You look on paper the players they have,” added Keane, “I mean, they have world class players out of the squad. They can leave players like Patrick Vieira out of the squad. We can't do something like that, but we have desire and commitment.”
Do France? That's the inferred scepticism.
With so much to lose, the suspicion is that the first meeting will intensify the tension rather than relieve it.