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Irish can't get caught cold again, says Best

 

By Jonathan Bradley

To flip the old adage on its head, the Six Nations is a sprint not a marathon.

While won in the ever-lengthening dusk of early spring, it can be lost at the very off in the very first winter afternoon.

It's something Ireland know all too well, having learnt some harsh lessons along the way.

One year ago, having made it to the stadium later than usual thanks to their bus getting caught in Edinburgh traffic, Ireland were slow out of the blocks and could never recover in falling 27-22 to Scotland.

If not quite Championship hopes, then Grand Slam and Triple Crown ambitions shot to pieces in half an hour.

It was a relatively similar story 12 months prior when, this time at home to Wales, Ireland started the game well but ultimately drew 16-16.

Failure to start well in this competition puts a side on the back foot, and then with only four steps to the finish line, it can be almost impossible to catch up, meaning there is plenty riding on Ireland's opener against France in Paris this afternoon (4.45pm kick-off).

Ahead of his 107th Test cap, captain Rory Best said: "You can put so much more pressure on yourself as a group.

"Obviously the draw with Wales was a frustrating one because we actually started really well and we played really well in it. There were a couple of little things that went against us.

"But last year, it was almost as if we started cold. We were a little bit late getting to the ground, and it was almost as if we didn't get off the bus for the first 20 minutes, 40 minutes.

"A good start is important. It's important at some point to exert scoreboard pressure but it's also how you are in the game right from the opening exchanges. You need to get onto the front foot, win the opening exchanges and get into the game."

For all his Test experience, Best has beaten France in Paris on just one occasion - the 2014 Championship-clinching victory that brought him the second of three Six Nations medals.

While the cliché of not knowing which France will turn up is trotted out each and every year, this time it rings remarkably true. The side who have not won since the final game of last season's tournament have changed coach since their last outing - former Italy and Bordeaux coach Jacques Brunel has taken on the role from Guy Noves - and put their faith in a host of youngsters, most notably 19-year-old debutant fly-half Matthieu Jalibert.

While taking on Les Bleus before they've had any time to gel as a side could be seen as an advantage, there remains a fear of the unknown.

"I think because of European rugby now, we're able to get individual profiles on people which is important," said Best. "The big thing is how they play as a team. When you look at the team and you look at the caps column, there is a good team but still a lot of inexperience and it's how that all combines.

"For us being first up, we cant really predict that. All we can do is plan the best we can for what we feel they're going to deliver and that we look to the individuals. The thing we pride ourselves on is making sure we have our detail nailed on and that we look at the opposition. We've done that and between now and kick-off we'll have done that."

In a wider context, it is now that the build up to the 2019 World Cup begins to step up a gear, with Joe Schmidt himself this week noting the limited number of games before the big tournament in Japan.

Best, though, was quick to reject the idea it would already be on the minds of players.

"I don't think so. I hope not anyway," he said. "It's just something that the coaches have to plan, there always has to be a bigger picture when it comes to World Cups.

"But I think from players, and I know people do get bored with that old cliché, it's each game at a time. Last year we got caught up with looking ahead and we misjudged Scotland for 40 minutes.

"So the way that you perform at the World Cup is by performing in each game as they come along the way and if you can build a squad, if you can build form and confidence, things can go from there.

"So from a players' point of view, we would never, ever take an Ireland game for granted and that's our attitude, and it's got to be. I understand the coaches and their need to plan ahead but we want to go from day to day and game to game.

"We expect everything to be laid out in front of us, like a path, and it just doesn't magically happen, there has to be planning around that.

"But from our point of view it is always about the next game, as boring as that is."

When the next game is as big as it is, not always so.

Bradley's Verdict: Ireland

It still seems odd to say but Ireland have travelled to France as favourites. With their key men Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray and Tadhg Furlong all fit and firing, there's no reason to suspect that the men in green won't stretch their winning streak to eight games. While France have talent, they are not yet a team having had such little time together.

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