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France game could well be Ireland's Waterloo

By Neil Francis

Just when Imanol Harinordoquy's international career is over and we thought we were safe from his inordinately difficult pronunciation – the French go and involve Sebastien Vahaamahina. I hope for Ireland's sake he, if brought on off the bench today, is not as good as the Biarritz number 8 who was one of the great back row players of all time.

Ireland are in a mess and there is probable cause to say that they would have a better team made out of their injured players and squad members than the team that starts today.

The O'Gara saga has been done to death and if you need reassurance that his time is up then you can ask yourself: would a new coach pick him in his first squad? The answer is no. When it became obvious that my time was up in the national side – the selectors told me: "Ten seasons – thanks very much."

It didn't make any difference whether I was thrown bodily from the team hotel or whether they cracked open a jeroboam of Charles Heidsieck Brut '89 and toasted my career – my time was up and I knew it.

I got a letter from the Chairman of the Selectors (quite a quaint term now isn't it?) saying that I was to keep fit and my international career definitely wasn't over. If Jeremy Davidson, Mal O'Kelly, Paddy Johns and Gabriel Fulcher all broke their legs at the same time – I'd be straight back in! I had a feeling that they would have picked Twiggy ahead of me if it came to it.

Mick Kearney is a little bit disingenuous when he says that O'Gara's career isn't over because that decision has already been made. Very few people get to go out on their own terms.

This forthcoming international holds the interest for one reason; the various states of desperation that both sides find themselves in, both of their own making. One of the things that strikes you about Ireland's team is how ordinary it looks. They are short on quality in key positions and our bench looks bare, right down to our reserve tight-head.

You can't quibble too much with selection either. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if Gilroy had been fit.

Earls made a couple of line breaks in the Scotland game but his decision – and it was a definite course of action not to pass to O'Driscoll – was a sackable offence. When he line-bust the head looked three times for support and on the second look he knew exactly where O'Driscoll was – tracking him as one of the best support line-runners in the world.

A simple step inside would have fixed Hogg and Maitland and the pass on the right would have made O'Driscoll uncatchable. Hogg was the quickest player on the pitch with Maitland not far behind. Earls went on the outside with barely any conviction and got pushed into touch for a turnover. In his career so far that was the worst decision he has made. He is lucky to survive for this match.

The wing selections are interesting. McFadden was brought in from outside the squad to play on the right. Luke Fitzgerald was brought on against the Scots with 20 to go so why is it that he doesn't get to start today?

Well, because he can't place-kick.

McFadden, third choice place-kicker for Leinster, is a significantly more accurate and reliable place-kicker than Paddy Jackson and is in the side because he is a very good and reliable player who played well in the Rabo last week ... and he can place-kick.

How desperate are Ireland to win? I'm sure they are straining at the leash. Their integrity or enthusiasm is not in question. Do they though have belief in their systems? Do they believe in their coach or captain? Are they in a position to arrest worrying trends that have developed in their play? This team have gone for long periods in games, 30 to 40 minutes without scoring. Can they keep the scoreboard ticking over?

Their scoring averages are awful with one try from seven clear-cut chances and that won't cut it against the French. Ireland were 25% from place-kicks and that ain't going to cut it either.

I think we could get, because of French indiscipline, about six kickable penalties.

How many will we kick? More importantly, how many will we attempt? I'm not sure too if our back row can neutralise Louis Picamoles stampeding sorties or if our scrum can deal with Domingo and Mas.

If you check Ireland's emotional dipstick you will find that they are low on confidence and self-esteem. They need help from somewhere.

Philippe Saint-Andre is some way off being the smartest coach, not only in Europe but in France too. His substitutions in the England game were nearly as stupid as his misplaced faith in flaky Michalak. If he repeats that performance this weekend then Ireland could benefit. This match will exacerbate the notion that Ireland are a maddeningly inconsistent side – something that will cost Kidney his job in June.

Ireland have the ability to win, but mentally there is too much flux going through the side and I think it is a huge ask of this team to get themselves right to win against a vulnerable but powerful French outfit.

Belfast Telegraph


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