France v Ireland: It’s a huge task but it is one we are capable of
It promises to be an awesome match.
France versus Ireland in Paris, a venue where the visitors seldom prosper and where, with the late kick-off — 5.30pm French time — there will have been sufficient vin rouge consumed to add to the already highly-charged atmosphere and ear-splitting volume.
On their day the French can be relied upon to serve up a cocktail of passion, power and panache.
And — with it being on home soil against last season’s all-conquering Irish — pride.
If that is one of the deadly sins, they will be stoking the fires of hell high for this French team. Meanwhile, by way of a precursor, Brian O’Driscoll and his colleagues can expect a very hot Paris-style welcome.
This isn’t going to be any place for the faint-hearted. Fortunately Ireland aren’t.
The first quarter will be all-important. Experience — that oft-times harsh teacher — has shown that any opponents who give the French a headstart are unlikely to be able to reel them back in.
Oh yes, we can point to the fact that four years ago on the same pitch Ireland allowed France to race to a 29-3 interval lead before giving them a huge fright with a four-try post-interval riposte which saw them win the second half by a 28-14 margin.
While that was a magnificent effort, nevertheless it finished 43-31 to France. Call it noble if you wish, but the bottom line is that it was a defeat.
That’s the norm for Irish trips to Paris, of course. In the 38 years since 1972, they have managed a solitary win.
That one success — in 2000 — is not a statistic to inspire confidence.
But on this occasion Ireland will have travelled in the conviction that they can emerge triumphant. Why? Because man for man they are good enough and hard enough.
In addition there ought not to be any unexpected factors. By dint of closely scrutinised analysis of the French, Ireland have a pretty good idea of what to expect.
And as skipper O’Driscoll reminded the media this week, it’s 15 against 15 on a pitch the same size as that on which they are accustomed to playing.
So it all comes down to mental strength and the ability to cope with the pressure of playing in a cauldron, watched by a largely hostile crowd of 82,000. That’s what is going to count.
Ireland’s big incentive? The realisation that beating France in Paris would confirm this as being a genuinely world-class side capable of progressing to the business end of the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand.
To beat one of the best teams in the world on their home patch would be a huge statement which almost certainly would see Ireland climb to third place in the IRB world ratings.
Those are team goals. As individuals, too, however, these Irish players are anxious to prove that they can live with their opposite numbers, even in an environment weighted heavily against them doing so.
There is also the knowledge that if they win they will go to Twickenham a fortnight hence with everything in place for a successful defence of the Grand Slam, something never achieved since the Five Nations became six in 2000.
But tomorrow Ireland must not allow themselves to be intimidated or distracted.
There is no reason why they should be; they boast players who have been victorious on French soil with their clubs, are well used to handling pressure, have developed a winning habit — and the mindset necessary to keep that going — and who believe themselves to be as good as any against whom they will be pitted.
Even so, France start as favourites, not just for tomorrow’s showdown but for the series overall.
But Ireland could buck the bookmakers’ odds, albeit that if they are to do so they will be required to play superbly, both as units and as individuals, for the whole 80 minutes.
Is there a French weakness? I think Ireland will target their half-backs. I hope they do.
The hosts’ scrum is strong, but Ireland’s front five will pose them many more problems than did the Scots. Provided Cian Healy can hack it, that setpiece should be fine.
The Irish line-out is excellent and while they won’t lord it over the French the way they did against Italy, they can be relied upon to hold their own at least.
So everything is going to hinge on who wins the breakdown and around-the-fringes scraps, enabling them to deploy their back lines.
The Irish pack must feed Messrs D’Arcy, O’Driscoll, Earls, Bowe and Kearney. If they do that, then we’ll see.
Add an O’Gara kicking performance as good as last week and Ireland won’t be far away.