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Six Nations needs a stronger France: Longwell, McBride

By Jonathan Bradley

When Gary Longwell first stood in Lansdowne Road ahead of a Six Nations contest, Ireland hadn't beaten France at home in 18 years. Eighty minutes later, and after Ulster's European Cup-winning lock was sprung from the bench to make two crucial tackles and four line-out takes, a monumental win for the Irish was secured thanks to a try from Brian O'Driscoll and five Ronan O'Gara penalties.

Longwell played twice more against Les Bleus - winning one and losing the other - but that first victory hardly sparked a sea change in what had been a one-sided rivalry since French dominance was first established in the 1930s.

Indeed, after Longwell's final cap against the Six Nations' most flamboyant side in 2003, Ireland would win just one of the next 14 encounters.

Matters have improved markedly in recent years, with notable wins for Joe Schmidt's men in both the Six Nations and World Cup, but, while hoping for an Irish win in the Aviva Stadium this afternoon (4.50pm kick-off), Longwell is also looking out for an improved French team from what we have seen in recent years.

"I think the last few years have been the weakest French team I've seen," said the 26-times capped international. "It's pleasing to see them get back to something like the sort of form that we expect.

"It weakens the Six Nations considerably if you have a poor French team because when they're playing well, it is nearly impossible to stop them.

"I remember playing them when they won the Grand Slam against us.

"There were runners everywhere and you just couldn't know what was going to happen next.

"Their energy and aggression, it's so hard to deal with and that's what we want to see them get back to."

Fellow Queen's University product Denis McBride, who won 32 caps for Ireland between 1988 and 1997, didn't get to experience the high of beating France, losing on every occasion he lined up against them.

He too hopes that today sees the visitors display more of their characteristic flair than we have seen on recent visits to Dublin.

"I played against them six times and never beat them," he recalled with a chuckle.

"My international career spanned the end of the Blanco era and the England-France duel the whole way through the 1990s, so there were some good teams in there for sure.

"The question for us was always do you match France or play your own style?

"It didn't tend to work either way for us no matter what we did, but now I expect Ireland to just go out and focus on their own game, not worry too much about matching France or anything like that.

"Even back then, they always had the forward power but recently they seemed to become obsessed with bulk, the Mathieu Bastareauds of this world, and lost a bit of the flair that made them so good.

"That's coming back and it's good to see them start to play that way again."

While it is still early days in Guy Noves' reign, and many believe the long-time Toulouse man was handed the national job too late in his career, McBride has been encouraged by what he has seen in the Championship so far, even if the tries are hardly flowing.

Still more keen for an offload than any other team in the Six Nations, they remain a work in progress with the former flanker identifying fellow back-row man Louis Picamoles as the player Ireland must shut down this evening.

"They have restructured again but at least it seems like they're heading in the right direction," he said.

"They've brought back some of the same players but it seems that Guy Noves has got them playing.

"They have that forward power, Picamoles is playing magnificently and they probably should have beaten England already, who are the favourites for the title.

"They're a very strong unit but I think Ireland have home advantage and the scrum has been going well.

"If they give Conor Murray time, and play a bit more conservatively than they had to against Italy, there will be chances to turn France around with kicks and also to create some gaps."

Gary Longwell and Denis McBride were speaking to the Belfast Telegraph at the launch of the Robbie Moore Queen's Rugby Hall of Fame. The club stalwart passed away in November after a lifetime of service to the university side, coaching the likes of Longwell, McBride, Tommy Bowe, Iain Henderson and David Humphreys. His contribution to the club, as well as that of the 20 Lions produced by the side, will be honoured at a gala dinner on April 21.

Belfast Telegraph

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