Six Nations: Ireland in spring will be a breeze to the French
WE've been down this road before. Opening game against the Italians, indifferent win, panic attack, the end is nigh. Panic everywhere, that is except where it matters most and Declan Kidney knows the score better than any.
He and his players know they didn't come remotely close to where they would have wanted to be post-match on Saturday. Equally they are around long enough to know that you must be at your best for Test rugby, most particularly in this tournament.
Saturday's fare was dire but there were positives on display and looking forward to the season's first objective of taking on the French in Paris this weekend, it was an opening performance that was pretty much on track, bearing in mind the opposition.
Look, it's so easy to be negative in these claustrophobic rugby times. Slow down the ball, close out the opposition and prevent constructive rugby is the simplest plan in the book. It may not always be achieved but in terms of a realistic objective for most teams at this level, it's well within their powers.
If the Italians can operate pretty efficiently in suffocating the All Blacks in the autumn, then Ireland in the spring is a relative breeze.
I remember back in my schoolboy soccer days when playing for Rangers Boys (Terenure) against St Kevin's Boys (Whitehall). We were top dogs on the south side and St Kevin's, with Liam Brady the star, were top guns north of the river. We met in many under-age finals and contested most league titles up through the ranks.
But whenever we came head-to-head, the first principle was to snuff out the developing genius in the black and orange No 10 shirt. To that end, one of our talented midfielders with a great big engine (well, inside right as it was more accurately
termed back then), Tommy Kenny, was designated to track Brady from box to box, never letting him out of his sight. Generally he succeeded and whatever about the principle, it was a very early lesson for this long-over-the-top observer as to how much easier and more effective it is to negate than create.
On Saturday in Croke Park, 'Tommo' was in blue and 'Chippy' in green as the Azzurri blanket succeeded in snuffing almost every green spark. We were both slow out of the blocks (despite the 15-point half-time lead) and limp in desire and wherewithal to put them away after the break.
With France producing a much more impressive winning performance in Murrayfield 24 hours later, it's pretty clear already where most sensible money will now be headed this coming weekend. On this opening-round evidence, allied to our horrendous record in the French capital, it will be Les Bleus who are the clear favourites going into Saturday's must-win game.
The key ingredient for France in Edinburgh was control; the ability to dictate tempo at critical times in the Murrayfield contest.
I worry about the look of this French side. There appears a delicate blend of finesse and crude physicality. In Francois Trinh-Duc they at last have a genuine playmaker at out-half.
He is a game-controlling No 10, one with a very real presence in the prime match-managing position. In Imanol Harinordoquy they also have a dynamic and tactically astute No 8, while the ferocity from one to five needs little elaboration.
If all are fit and raring to go and were the call mine, it would be Leo Cullen retained alongside Paul O'Connell in the second-row. Ronan O'Gara likewise, with Tomas O'Leary at half- back, leaving Stephen Ferris for Kevin McLaughlin the only change to the starting 15 from last week. If Andrew Trimble's hamstring is deemed okay, then I would start with the Ulsterman again on the left, springing Keith Earls when the appropriate time arrives. Gordon D'Arcy would continue at inside centre leaving Kidney to decide on whether Ronan O'Gara or Jonathan Sexton will run the show.
On this, the decision guaranteed to garner most media attention, I trust implicitly in t Kidney's call. All told, it would make for a line-up to hit the Stade de France along the following lines: Rob Kearney (Leinster); Tommy Bowe (Ospreys), Brian O'Driscoll, (Leinster, capt), Gordon D'Arcy (Leinster), Andrew Trimble (Ulster); Ronan O'Gara (Munster), Tomas O'Leary (Munster); Cian Healy (Leinster), Jerry Flannery (Munster), John Hayes (Munster); Leo Cullen (Leinster), Paul O'Connell (Munster); Stephen Ferris (Ulster), David Wallace (Munster), Jamie Heaslip (Leinster).