Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Gavin Mairs: Lurid tales have given Irish L'Equipement to win

Nothing has gone right for Ireland so far in France. Their form has been shot to pieces by a couple of bewilderingly below-par performances against minnows Namibia and Georgia just when Argentina's stunning victory over hosts France made bonus points and points difference a crucial part of the battle for the quarter-finals.

Injury and loss of form have respectively robbed them of players of the quality of Rory Best, Denis Hickie, Peter Stringer and Geordan Murphy while an amazing array of rumours have abounded of discontentment in the camp.

Yet just when it looked like things couldn't get any worse for Ireland, a couple of attacks in the French newspaper this week have galvanised the squad, reminiscent of the way Austin Healey's attack on Justin Harrison in his column on the morning of the final decisive Test between the Lions and Australia in 2001 provided the extra spur for the triumphant Wallaby camp.

French journalist Benjamin Massot, who has been reporting on Ireland's progress, or lack of it, for L'Equipe, first made allegations about Ronan O'Gara's private life and followed it up with an extraordinary character assignation on Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan yesterday.

In all the years of covering Ireland press conferences, there have been few crackling with raw emotion as yesterday's at the team's hotel in Paris.

Captain Brian O'Driscoll glared with anger and determination, claiming the " unfounded" allegations were a dirty tricks campaign aimed at unsettling the Irish camp.

In the massive auditorium of the Sofitel hotel, the action was unmissable.

Both captain and coach gave a rousing performance, speaking of the hurt and anger caused and how such actions would not be forgiven, instead thrown into motivational pot tonight.

So often words written and spoken before such gigantic sporting collisions count for nothing when the action unfolds, but on this occasion, as in Australia six years ago, there is a real sense that Ireland's sense of outrage will provide a new focus for a side desperately seeking to rediscover themselves.

How Bernard Laporte, himself under huge pressure following his side's defeat to Los Pumas, must be cursing L'Equipe. I will never forget the look on Lions coach Graham Henry when he read Healey's column all those years ago in the foyer of the team hotel on that fateful day in Sydney. The last thing Laporte needed was an Ireland team feeling they are in the lion's den, with a burning sense injustice and sheer, raw anger.

Just to give the pot a final stir, O'Sullivan also made reference to the fact that Ireland still felt they owed France one for the last-gasp defeat on the historic day at Croke Park last February, a defeat that ultimately cost his side their first Grand Slam since 1948. France will still go into tonight's encounter as favourites, following their 13-try romp against Namibia last Sunday, even if it was also a display riddled with errors. Thus Ireland will be back at home in the role of underdogs, a tag they have been trying to bury in this golden generation.

Tonight however is not a night for lofty ideals or intentions. It is about a brutal battle for World Cup survival.

And O'Sullivan's and O'Driscoll's expression of anger will have the effect of uniting the nation behind the team, and the team behind the shirt.

History is against Ireland, with two wins in Paris in 35 years. But then so is everything else. Just how they want it.

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