Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

Six Nations: 'Ferrisgate' can act as powerful lift for Ireland

Stephen Ferris has been cleared to take part in Ireland's Six Nations game against France
Stephen Ferris has been cleared to take part in Ireland's Six Nations game against France

Not a lot said at yesterday's Ireland team announcement, but plenty to talk about ahead of tomorrow's 'cold night in hell' showdown with France in Paris.

With Keith Earls the sole change to the side that came up short against Wales last weekend, Ireland are trusting in established players raising their level of performance in a hostile environment and it is hard to think of a game in the modern era where the squad has gone in with this level of motivation.



While Stephen Ferris was exonerated on Wednesday night, the controversy is set to rumble on. The IRB may be miffed by Ireland manager Mick Kearney's assertion that the independent disciplinary committee decreed that the Ireland flanker should not have been penalised for his tackle on Ian Evans last Sunday.



Aside from those ramifications and IRB's protective stance over referee Wayne Barnes, the decision to penalise, yellow card and cite Ferris for the 'tip tackle that wasn't' is incredibly galling for Ireland - particularly as the direct result was Wales kicking the winning penalty.



When the issue was raised yesterday, Irish coach Declan Kidney and captain Paul O'Connell were diplomatic in the extreme as they danced around the central theme of needing to "move on," but the atmosphere was undeniably one of suppressed outrage.



"We are within 48 hours of another match and the record books are going to show we have lost the last three times to Wales. Everybody knows what happened in two out of three," said Kidney, referring to last year's loss to Wales decided by Mike Phillips' illegal try.



"It is what it is, we can't do anything about it. We just have to move on. There is nothing in it for us to be giving (vent to) feelings like that. We just have to work with it. That's the way life is."



The consequences of those two miscarriages of justice extend beyond their effect on Ireland's respective Six Nations campaigns. Ireland have dropped two places to eighth in the world rankings in a year when rankings will determine seedings for the next World Cup.



There is no recourse with regard to rankings or last weekend's result and Ireland have been left gritting their teeth at events beyond their control. The only, straw-clutching upside is that it has surely fostered a determination born out of bitterness for tomorrow's contest.



"It is frustrating," acknowledged O'Connell.



"Guys are disappointed and if they want to keep it in the back of their minds to use as motivation, well and good."



They would be well advised to.

Watershed down



It is less than three years since Ireland won the Grand Slam and, though there have been some heady days since then, tomorrow represents a watershed occasion for a team that needs to deliver a discernible sense of direction in World Cup rankings year.



It may not have garnered much attention, or been swamped by the feel-good factor of Ireland's Heineken Cup achievements, but the statistics since that 2009 Grand Slam make for grim reading.



Ireland have played 31 matches since Ronan O'Gara's drop-goal glory in Cardiff, winning 16, losing 14 and drawing one. That is a win ratio of just over 50pc (53.22) and when you take away the victories over Canada, the USA (twice), Fiji, Samoa and Russia that leaves only 10 wins over what would be considered major rugby nations.



No better time for a turnaround.



Defence



Aside for the manner of Wales' winning score, the overriding theme since Sunday has been Ireland's passive defence that consistently allowed the Welsh to gain momentum.



It is clear that this has been a major focus this week with Kidney highlighting the need to close down a French side who arguably carry a greater attacking threat than Wales.



"We gave Wales a lot of field position and gave them room when they did run the ball," said Kidney. "We could look at closing down space more on Saturday."



Chalk it down - as they say in his native Cork.



Kicking



Loose kicking undeniably aided Welsh aspirations last weekend and, with a back three of Maxime Medard, Vincent Clerc and Julien Malzieu, a repeat performance could be disastrous.



"We kicked on Welsh terms rather than our own," said Kidney.



"It could have been smarter to come out of our own half. It is something within our control to rectify, no matter who we are playing. We have got to be smarter in that area."



By sticking with Jonathan Sexton instead of Ronan O'Gara (a past master at kicking for position), Kidney has thrown down the gauntlet to the Leinster out-half to put Ireland in the right places with accurate use of the boot.



Stade de France provides plenty of space to kick into and Sexton is well up to the task - it is essential that he proves as much tomorrow on a night when box-kicking and garryowens will also play a crucial role.



Breakdown



Beaten for the second time in succession by a mobile Wales back-row, Ireland are not up against a Sam Warburton-style out-and-out openside tomorrow, but Thierry Dusautoir and Imanol Harinordoquy are not exactly weak in this regard.



Sean O'Brien retains the No 7 jersey and received his coach's full backing yesterday.



"Sean is a really good professional, seeking out all types of info himself," said Kidney.



"He made more tackles than he would normally against Wales, so there was a need to rest. He will take a look at a video and we have to tell him very little, he knows it. The breakdown is always pivotal and we are looking to improve."



It would be good to see O'Brien getting on the ball more tomorrow night which puts an onus on Ferris and Jamie Heaslip to share the breakdown duties the way they managed so successfully against Australia and Italy at the World Cup.



Selection validation



Although it was never likely, there was an argument for going radical for Paris on the basis of last week's defeat and the fact that France are such heavy favourites.



However, throwing in Peter O'Mahony for his first cap would have reawakened memories of the torrid experiences of Davy Morrow, Don Whittle, Paul Hogan and Ken O'Connell -- talented back-rows who never recovered internationally from their Paris blooding.



It would have been exciting to see Sexton in next to O'Gara, but such experimentation was never realistically on the cards and it is Earls who is charged with providing midfield inspiration in Brian O'Driscoll's absence.



Tomorrow is a night for talented players to repay the faith shown in them by Kidney -- Sexton, Tommy Bowe, Gordon D'Arcy and O'Brien chief among them.



Forget Paris



"The French have an atmosphere all of their own, but, thankfully, through provincial Heineken Cup matches fellahs are getting more and more used to that," said Kidney.



"We just need to be ready from the off - if we stand off them at all, France will come out of the blocks and it will be 'Allez Allez' and a long night."



No arguments there. One win in 40 years tells its own story about Ireland's Parisian experiences. It is a city that breaks hearts, but if the Irish players can keep the focus that has served them so well on Heineken Cup excursions to France, the knowledge they could go down in the history books for rare achievement will act as a powerful spur.



Mr Motivator



Add it all together and there is no shortage of incentive. In Kidney, they have the ideal man to bring it all out. The worrying thing is that, even if Ireland manage to hit their peak in Paris tomorrow, it still might not be enough against a quality French outfit.

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