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France are no longer feared, says Ward ahead of Ireland's Six Nations opener

By Jonathan Bradley

Yet another coaching change, a winless November that included a home draw with Japan and, most recently, a police raid on their headquarters as part of an investigation into suspicions of favouritism - if you haven't been paying much attention to French rugby since the last Six Nations then, in summary, things have not been going well.

The once-feared Les Bleus, winners of five Championships and three Grand Slams since the turn of the century, have finished no better than third for the past six years, and indeed suffered the ignominy of the wooden spoon in 2013.

Such has been the level of disarray suffered by a side now under the watch of former Perpignan, Italy and Bordeaux coach Jacques Brunel, that Ireland have been installed as six-point favourites for when the sides meet in Paris on the first day of the 2018 Championship on Saturday (4:45pm).

The visitors fancied to beat the hosts in Paris by almost a score? Strange times indeed.

It was 20 years ago this season that a young Andy Ward pulled on the Irish jersey for the first time, with Stade de France the backdrop.

Back in 1998, Ireland had not won in Paris since the 1972 side of Willie John McBride, Mike Gibson et al stormed Colombes in a Championship that would go uncompleted when Scotland and Wales didn't travel to Dublin thanks to The Troubles.

Ward, a naturalised Kiwi who had arrived in Ireland to play at then-junior club Ballynahinch before making headway with Ulster, was given his international bow by his compatriot, and fellow former Waikato man, Warren Gatland.

The first of his 28 caps, Ireland equipped themselves well that day against a side containing plenty of players Ulster would become familiar with en route to the next year's European Cup, but ultimately lost by two points.

"It was a blur for me," recalls Ward now. "Two weeks prior to that, back when the Ulster season didn't roll on as long as it did, I was playing for Ballynahinch in AIL Division Three with maybe 80 people and four dogs watching.

"Then all of a sudden I was standing in the Stade de France in front of 78,000 people. The bus drives in under the ground and you see all the people, my head was blown away. It still feels magical.

"The game went in a flash. It felt like it lasted 10 minutes. We did well but it wasn't to be."

Back then that was par for the course, with a narrow defeat seen almost as a positive.

Two years later, Ward appeared off the bench in a game forever remembered for Brian O'Driscoll grabbing an historic hat-trick in his ill-fitting jersey.

Ireland's first win across the Channel was secured by David Humphreys' late penalty.

Not exactly a turning point in Irish-French relations - they have won just once since, the 2014 Championship-clinching victory - but this weekend sees Ireland justifiably expected to return home with the victory.

"It's a lot different now," Ward agrees. "French rugby has changed a lot.

"We all know they've had a lot of issues with their national side, with coaches coming and going and other problems.

"I just think it's down to the fact that their club sides simply don't have enough French players, that has a knock-on with the national side.

"It's how you lose a little identity too. That Gallic flair, how they flash it about, that's gone a little bit in the face of this foreign influence.

"Obviously the Irish provinces as well going over there and doing so well in Europe strips away some of that too.

"It's not a big thing going over to France anymore."

Working further in Ireland's favour, Ward believes, is the continued presence of Joe Schmidt in their coaching box.

No stranger to French rugby after his stint with Clermont - although truth be told Schmidt is no stranger to rugby in any part of the world it seems - Ward feels that the Kiwi is a potential game-changer for Ireland this season.

"He's a magician," says the former flanker of his compatriot. "He knows how to play each team, how to adapt the tactics. He's like the architect. I can see Ireland doing really well."

Like any seasoned watcher of Irish rugby, Ward tempers optimism with a word of caution.

"It's a good time to play France first up with all their changes but, saying that, sport is a funny old thing," he adds.

"That's the danger. There's the potential but it's having the right person to harness that. Once they click, the crowd get behind them and away they go.

"I liken them to the Maoris. You give them an inch, they take a mile, but you have to get in their faces from the start.

"Joe Schmidt knows that and they'll be choking France with Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton there to pull the strings."

One game at a time will be the familiar mantra, but with three home clashes next on the slate, a winning start could provide quite the launching pad.

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