Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Just where has Ireland's 'joie de vivre' gone to?

Esprit de corps: a state of mind, morale, a united sense or feeling, of direction, conviction, spirit, and enthusiasm toward a generally positive cause or purpose.

In the light of this definition, when France recovered from their shock defeat to Argentina to beat Namibia 87-10, it is notable that Bernard Laporte stated that what pleased him most was that his players had rediscovered the pleasure of playing rugby. Looking at the strain and stress etched on Ronan O'Gara's face before the kick-off on Friday evening, you just wonder where on earth our own "joie de vivre" had disappeared to.

With the guts of twenty minutes gone there were only six points separating the two teams and Ireland was, in theory, at least, still in the match. However, the freshness, enthusiasm and ambition of the French team left the depressingly moribund impression that realistically there was only ever going to be one winner.

The French performance was far from flawless, with Freddy Michalak giving the French crowd heart palpitations at times, with the odd slip, sliced kick and wrong decision, but he was picked for a specific reason - because he is capable of skill, most of us can only dream about - and he didn't disappoint.

His beautifully crafted banana kick to send Vincent Clerc in for the easiest of tries was shaped not by programming or patterns, but by vision, sublime skill and perfect execution and it effectively closed the door on the game.

Ireland cannot be faulted for effort as the team tried in vain to overhaul the lead but handling errors, a lack of composure and indiscipline rendered these travails like the Macbeth quote, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing".

As a former winger, let me make it clear, Andrew Trimble was not the villain of this play. He did not go AWOL, he did not decide to randomly leave his wing spot and stand as first man in the defensive line.

That was a pre-determined defensive system, I can only imagine designed to give extra protection to the number 10 channel.

He signalled to Simon Easterby that he had switched positions, and at that point, the responsibility for the short side defence was handed over to the backrow.

Either Michalak or Clerc, or both read the situation, called it on the pitch and broke Irish hearts.

Ironically, it reminded me of Peter Stringer's try against Biarritz in the 2006 Heineken Cup final, when the diminutive scrumhalf spotted exactly the same defensive system and darted down the blindside, leaving Serge Betsen rooted to the side of the scrum.

You cannot help but feel an impending sense of doom about the all-or-nothing clash against Argentina on Sunday.

The paucity of Ireland tries thus far compounded by Argentina's defensive record deflates the balloon of optimism even further. However, anything is possible in sport and Ireland's chances this weekend could yet depend on the performances of one or two Ulster players. There's no point in holding anything back - ambitious, imaginative, aggressive but composed rugby is the only option and selection should reflect this.

The under pressure Ronan O'Gara is sure to start, but if points don't come quickly, Paddy Wallace should get a chance to take on the Argentina defence.

Paddy has the ability to attack not only spaces, but also opposition players as his dancing feet can turn a guy inside out in the space of a telephone box. This could be his biggest opportunity of his career. The match is also tailor-made for Geordan Murphy whose absence from the bench last Friday left no scope for a Plan B. There would be no greater motivation for the Leicester tiger than to earn his stripes again and make a mockery of O'Sullivan's previous selection.

There may also be a recall for Dennis Hickie who, if Ireland loses, would see the final curtain come down on what has been a most distinguished international career. However, if both these selections are made, it begs the question as to who will make way and I fear that Trimble might be the sacrificial lamb.

In the backrow, please get Neil Best on the pitch and let's see someone in an Ireland shirt dole out some retribution!

Finally, Argentina faces an unusual situation. Everything seems to be running perfectly for them and they approach the match as favourites, a position in which they have never found themselves against Ireland in the World Cup. This brings with it the danger of hesitancy - will they be more concerned with going out to win the match or simply stopping Ireland?

Off the field it's clear - the former applies, but in a match situation, if Ireland can get off to a flyer, then they may shut up shop and turn to defensive mode - a dangerous strategy which could play right into Ireland's hands.

Nevertheless, with a realistic chance of topping the group, avoiding New Zealand in the quarter-finals, and giving themselves a chance at a semi-final slot, there can be no greater incentive for them to go out and play once again for their lives.

Everyone will be hoping that the Ireland of old will reappear and give us something to cheer about. Win or lose, it's back to basics stuff. A performance based on passion, skill and a dogged self-belief is all we're looking for - a classic "esprit de corps".

However, a monster pack, world-class half backs and some crackers out wide may mean a "Last Tango in Paris" for the men in green.

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