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Ireland v France: It's a make or break showdown for Ireland, admits Rory Best

Opening defeat to Scotland is still hugely frustrating but centurion reveals his men have found greater belief against old rivals France

By Jonathan Bradley

After opening their Six Nations campaign in Edinburgh and Rome, Ireland are today in front of their home crowd for the first time with skipper Rory Best believing the Irish challenge has already reached a crossroads with today's clash with France (4.50pm kick-off).

With away wins in this Championship so hard to come by - Ireland have lost on the road to each of their Six Nations competitors bar Italy since Joe Schmidt took charge - the visit from Les Bleus was always likely to be must-win if there was to be any hope of a third title in four years.

And so it has proved thanks to an opening round loss in Murrayfield that featured arguably the worst 40 minutes of rugby the team have produced under Schmidt.

The French, who also arrive having split their opening two games, are in a similar boat after losing to England, even with an easier remaining schedule.

Best sees the game as make or break for both sides.

"It's obviously massive for both teams," said the hooker, who missed the win over Italy thanks to late stomach upset.

"There's the context of the Championship itself but for us also to make sure that we don't ever let that first half in Scotland happen again.

"We need to make sure what we built through the second half of Scotland, and a very good performance in Rome, that we keep stepping forward."

As Best speaks, it's clear that Ireland's latest centurion is still rankled by the opening of the Championship, coming as it did off the back of a historic November that further raised expectation throughout the camp, with the routine win over Italy not fully exorcising the ghosts of Edinburgh.

"I think the frustrating thing for the players, and I know the coaches definitely felt it, was that we felt we took a big step back in that first half against Scotland and that was just everything that we did from the start of that game," he said.

"There were aspects of it, when we looked at it, that weren't as bad as we felt it was, but I think the frustrating thing was that we took a bit of a step back, and it's something that we talk about never doing.

"We always glance back to go forward, that's the way we go about our business and that was the frustrating thing.

"So with that weekend off and the break in between, it's important that we show ourselves that we're capable of always pushing forward."

Over the course of what will become 102 caps this evening, the changing Irish attitude to the French has been one big development throughout Best's international career, with results in recent years showing a marked improvement.

Last year's loss in Paris was Ireland's first to France in the Six Nations since 2011, while their thumping World Cup win in Cardiff was one of the highlights of recent years.

"Probably when I first came into the squad, it was a real rarity that we'd beat them," said the 34-year-old Ulsterman.

"Obviously we've won in some fairly crucial games in recent years, but they swung the momentum back last year in getting the win.

"We know them a lot better than we used to, but I just think there's a different mindset to playing for Ireland now than there was 12 years ago.

"We firmly believe we can beat anyone on our day. Over the last two to three years, we've realised what consistency is, and it's not just consistency of performance on the pitch.

"Certainly the one to win the Championship in 2014 was a big one for us. I remember the build-up to that week, everyone was talking about with the way the points difference was stacked up, how all we had to do was win it and it had been a long time since we had won in Paris so it was going to be a big task for us to complete.

"I, for one, had never won in Paris before that. That was obviously a big change for us, to win then go in and I suppose have so much confidence behind the team going into that, that we would win it.

"I think underdogs and favourites is probably something outside of the squad, both squads.

"I think the good thing for us about being favourites or having that expectation means that you're a quality side, it means that what you've been doing is working, that you've put yourself in a position to regularly win games and challenge for Championships.

"From that side of things, it's been enjoyable to be in a team that can compete with anyone."

And, for Best, the side will need to show that again, even if the French have still failed to fully convince under long-term Toulouse supremo Guy Noves.

"They are very dangerous, especially if we give them turnover ball in broken field," he added. "They are going to be a real threat so we have to make sure that we keep the ball and put them under pressure when we have it and make them do a lot of tackling."

Belfast Telegraph

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