Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

O’Gara can kick Ireland to victory

Ronan O'Gara

Ireland will be hoping they don’t suffer a case of déjà vu when they face France in the Six Nations Championship opener at Croke Park this evening.

Two years ago, France provided the opposition for the first ever rugby match at Croke Park on the opening day of the championship.

Irish expectations were high despite skipper Brian O’Driscoll being injured.

Ireland led by a point with two minutes left when they were awarded a penalty. Stand-in captain Paul O’Connell pointed to the posts when there was a school of thought that maybe going for the corner was the better option to run down the clock or get a clinching try.

Ronan O’Gara stepped up to land his fourth penalty and give Ireland a four points lead.

France kicked off, Ireland let the ball bounce and seconds later winger Vincent Clerc was under the sticks to silence the 83,000 crowd.

Much has changed in the Ireland set-up since then, coach Eddie O’Sullivan has been replaced by Declan Kidney and O’Gara is the only back who started two years ago in today's line up.

Ireland will have the weight of history to bear; only one Grand Slam, no championship since 1985 and no victory over France since 2003, which includes two World Cup meetings, yet Kidney’s men start favourites against the Les Blues.

As in all big games there will be key battles and although it’s a team effort each player must outplay their opposite number.

In the modern game, where well-drilled defences are the order of the day, the kicking game takes on added importance.

Ronan O’Gara, Ireland’s record points scorer, wins his 88th cap and it is paramount his goal kicking is accurate and he also needs to be tactically astute.

France coach Marc Lievremont has been criticised for picking only one out-half in the squad.

Lionel Beauxis was a member of the French squad that won the 2006 Under-21 World Cup. He’s won 13 caps and uses the drop goal as a potent weapon, as Ulster found to their cost when he helped Stade Francais to victory at Ravenhill in the Heineken Cup last October.

While the duel of the No10s might decide the game, the most mouth-watering clash on the pitch is in the second row where Paul O’Connell comes up against Sebastian Chabal.

O’Connell, or superman as he is known in his native Munster, is a certainty to be in the Lions Test team. He is a superb athlete, strong in the set piece and a huge ball carrier for Ireland.

Chabal, or the cavemen as he is known in Sale where he plays his club rugby, is one of the most recognisable and hardest players in world rugby.

Some of his hits are legendary as All Black Ali Williams will testify. Equally at home in the back or second row he adds bulk to the French scrum.

However, Munster have done a job on him in recent Heineken Cup matches where they have targeted him early and put him off his game.

His clash with O’Connell is another side attraction in what promises to be another roller coaster ride at Croke Park.

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