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Six Nations: Rory Best is urging Ireland to fly out of the traps

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 13/02/2016

Into his stride: Ireland captain Rory Best walks out onto the Stade de France pitch with Sean O’Brien
Into his stride: Ireland captain Rory Best walks out onto the Stade de France pitch with Sean O’Brien

Ireland captain Rory Best has plenty of reasons not to get carried away with his side's recent record against today's Six Nations opponents France.

Joe Schmidt's men have not tasted defeat to Les Bleus since 2011 and, having secured the 2014 title on French soil, go into today's game knowing that victory would give them back-to-back away triumphs across the Channel for the first time since the 1920s.

As one of the senior members of Schmidt's squad, however, Best remembers when Ireland used to struggle in Paris.

The Ulster star lost six of his first seven home and away contests against the enigmatic entertainers, a stat that still plays on his mind despite the recent upturn in fortunes that also brought a comprehensive victory at the World Cup.

"I played here a few times without any joy earlier in my career," he said deep inside the Stade de France after yesterday's captain's run. "They're a quality side, this is a very tough place to play.

"When they sing the French anthem, it's a great place to be because there's such passion.

"You have to block that out but we're going to have to be better than we were last week if we're going to get a result."

After what was one of the lightest training weeks of Schmidt's tenure, Best dismissed any notion that a lack of preparation time after the opening draw with Wales just six days ago would affect the players.

"This hasn't been a surprise, we knew when the fixtures came out," he said of the shorter than usual turnaround.

"We've utilised the time as best we can. With this being the second game of a block of two, we feel we've done a lot of the work already.

"At this stage it's important that it's player-driven. That's what the huddle and the walk around the pitch is about. Everyone gets a sense that the coaches have done their bit and it's up to the players now.

"Coaches can influence tactics with substitutions but ultimately it's the players who take the field."

One area where the skipper will be demanding a marked improvement upon last week is in the scrum.

Ireland were bested at the set-piece by Warren Gatland's men in Dublin, conceding a try from a drive off the base by Taulupe Faletau after a number of penalties.

Best and his tight-five colleagues largely rectified matters after the turn but he is searching for a better start.

"We got caught cold in the first-half against Wales," said Best. "It was a bit of a different combination in the entire front five and CJ (Stander) coming into the back-row for the first time too.

"We worked a few things out at half-time and we improved as the game went on.

"We're under no illusions that this is going to be a sterner test again, and we must make sure we've done our work, but also to make sure that we keep pushing forward.

"We've got to make sure we don't start this game cold. The first scrum has to be slightly better than the last scrum against Wales, and so on and so forth."

While Schmidt kept the faith with his pack, bar the restoration of Sean O'Brien to his openside role after a hamstring injury, in the face of some scrum issues, his French counterpart Guy Noves has rung the changes.

There are alterations to the starting front-row, Jefferson Poirot and Uini Atonio replacing Eddy Ben Arous and Rabah Slimani while lock Alexandre Flanquart and Toulouse back-rower Yacouba Camara will also start.

With the depth available to Noves, Best says he expected a battle regardless of who started at the coalface.

"France have got a very, very good squad, so no matter who is picked it's a tough challenge," he said.

"Three changes in the front five freshens things up but by no means weakens them.

"It paints a slightly different picture for us, so we need to make sure that we are geared accordingly.

"The four props haven't changed from their match-day squad last week.

"We pride ourselves on putting as much attention into the subs as the starters. A lot of the time it's the end of the game where you're winning it. So for us it was just a change in emphasis as to who was starting."

When Best was called on to replace Paul O'Connell as captain last month - the legendary Munster lock who retired this week and himself only beat France away once in his career - he said he would lean heavily on the other experienced heads in the squad and so it proved yesterday.

The Poyntzpass man's leadership style has always been to speak up when required and on the Stade de France pitch just over 24 hours from kick-off it was Jonathan Sexton issuing many of the commands.

While Best does not want to overburden the chief orchestrator of Schmidt's game-plan, his words, and insight to the opposition after two tumultuous years spent at Parisian club Racing 92, both carry weight.

"He just talked through a few of the plays, things around our game plan," said Best. "He's got a big role to play as he runs the game for us. He has enough to do.

"With the amount of emphasis we put on everyone knowing the individual profiles of the French players, if he knows one of the players personally and somebody asked him about it, he is always giving of his time with information but from our point of view, the pressure is on each player.

"You can't rely on him to help with the profiles because he played in France. We've got to know them ourselves."

Belfast Telegraph

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