Belief is vital in France, insists McBride
He calls it the toughest place in the world to go and play. Coming from Willie John McBride, who helped the 1971 and 1974 British & Irish Lions win Test series in New Zealand and South Africa, that is some statement.
But McBride insists that Paris is the most hostile rugby environment on the planet.
“It is the most difficult place of all to win, no question about it. The atmosphere there is like nowhere else in the world.”
As Ireland prepare for this Saturday’s 6 Nations rugby international against France at Stade de France, Paris, McBride spoke of his own experiences of confronting the French in their own backyard.
“There is a real hatred coming out of the stands at Paris with all that booing. It was always like that, even in our day. I can remember playing at Stade Colombes in 1972, and you came up from underneath, out of the ground from the dressing rooms.
“From that moment, they were jeering and throwing cigarette lighters at you. You were really up against it.
“I think in many ways it intimidated referees as well because of that. It was a real feeling of being inside a cauldron.”
1972 was the only time McBride beat a French side in Paris and he played there seven times. Some of the games were close, 9-6 in 1974, 8-0 in 1970 and 11-6 in 1966. But that 14-9 Irish win apart in 1972, McBride never tasted victory.
Why was 1972 different? “That day was certainly special for me. We had come from 1971 and New Zealand where the Lions had won, so we were all on a high. We were players who believed in ourselves and we believed we could beat France that day, even though it’s not easy to win there.
“That’s the one thing I would say to Brian O’Driscoll and his team. You must believe you can win, that is essential. In my experience, Paris was certainly more hostile than New Zealand as a place to play. You have to walk out there and experience it to know what I mean. And I think it’s still the same.
“It’s the drumming, the noise and the booing and whistling. You don’t get all that anywhere else in the world. Even when you see Heineken Cup matches now over there, you see that same fever and you know as a visiting player it’s not in support of you.”
Former Irish captain Noel Murphy once came up with an innovative idea on how to handle such occasions. “Now spread out lads and stick together” was his curious mixture of advice. What would McBride say to Ireland’s defending Grand Slam champions as they prepare for France this Saturday?
“Self belief is the key to anything. For many years, there was this myth that New Zealand were unbeatable in their own country and I suppose South Africa as well. We demolished that myth in 1971 and 1974, as Ireland did to France in 1972.
“I’d say to this Ireland team, it’s no good turning up if you don’t believe you can succeed. For example, in 1966, we went to New Zealand with the Lions to try and win but we didn’t really believe we were going to beat them.
“On one occasion when we met New Zealand in Dublin, someone said ‘We are not going to beat New Zealand but we can give them a miserable afternoon’. That was about the height of it in those days and it was true. But the trouble is, once you start saying that, you believe it and believe you won’t win.
“I think this Irish team can and should believe they can win. Nowadays in the 6 Nations, there really is nothing between the teams, or very, very little, anyway.
“It’s about the team that keeps its discipline, doesn’t have guys sent off because you can’t play this game with 14 men anymore” (as Wales showed at Twickenham last Saturday when they lost lock forward Alun-Wyn Jones to the sin bin and England scored 17 points while he was off the field).
McBride called for a repeat of the spirit and self belief that Ireland took to Cardiff for their Grand Slam win last year.
He said “Ireland believed they could win that day, you could see it. For example, Ronan O’Gara was a targeted man for the whole game and he took a hell of a lot of physical abuse.
“But when it came to that late drop goal, he still had the poise and confidence to knock it over and that was down to self belief. That same sort of confidence will be needed this weekend in Paris.”