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Six Nations: Lessons learnt at World Cup can pay dividends for Ireland

By Tony Ward

Familiarity has bred confidence in Irish teams travelling to France. Professionalism has undoubtedly helped level the playing field - prior to that back in Five Nations time the biennial hiding in Paris was part and parcel of the Irish rugby cycle and we accepted it.

We tried to operate on the principle that ignorance was bliss yet travelled in fear of giving away cheap possession. You invited a French back into a gap and he was gone. That was the French way and nobody but nobody did it better.

Now it is New Zealand and Australia leading the counter-attacking revolution, but the original trailblazers under new coach Guy Noves are hinting at a return.

There were signs against the Italians - despite the tightness of the result - that this young French side have designs on going back to the future.

From an Irish perspective, despite waving goodbye to two of the three titles on offer - Triple Crown and Grand Slam - last week's draw with Wales was a welcome result.

We were on the rack for numerous reasons, but the individual and collective response was uplifting. We could have beaten the Welsh but given the context this was a result that may well have kick-started a new era for Irish rugby.

We are now minus Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell, two players generally recognised as the two greatest of this or any other era in Irish rugby.

This trip to the Stade de France is vital. We must build on the confidence and with it the momentum that should flow from last week's result.

It is vital we impose ourselves in exactly the same way as we did from the off in the Aviva six days ago.

It is vital we build on a pattern of play slightly removed from what we have witnessed over the last two Six Nations campaigns.

There was no sea change in modus operandi against the Welsh but there was a little more sensible off-loading, and a far less slavish adherence to kick and chase.

We are not looking to reinvent the wheel but develop a varied style of play more appropriate to the modern game.

Look at Connacht and what can be achieved with far more limited resources. I admire Joe Schmidt for what we witnessed last Sunday.

It was the clearest hint that the coach has learned the lessons of the World Cup and is prepared to adapt, albeit through sensible small steps.

The French, by contrast, appeared to be taking a much greater leap of faith and almost lost out in the process.

I can't believe I'm saying this but we haven't lost in Paris since 2010. A win today and it's four in a row.

And on last week's evidence, I believe we can do it.

French rugby is still paying the price for club success. That might appear a contradiction, but it is clear that the development of indigenous talent is suffering at the altar of oversea investment.

And if anyone doubts the difference the influence of a new coach makes then compare the 23 named by Noves in midweek with the French squad beaten comprehensively by Ireland back in October in Cardiff.

Just five (the front-row of Rabah Slimani, new captain Guilhem Guirado and Eddy Ben Arous, plus lock Yoann Maestri and No.8 Damien Chouly) are still in the match-day squad, with just three of that quintet starting.

By contrast Schmidt has picked 14 of the match day 23 at the Millennium Stadium, with injury ruling out at least another half-dozen likely to have been in the frame again.

If battered and bruised bodies have recovered from a crazy six-day turnaround then this Ireland squad is good enough to make it back to-back wins in the French capital for the first time since a run of success there between 1925 and 1929.

I am excited by the ball-carrying potential of this newly assembled Irish back-row.

Tommy O'Donnell did so much right and precious little wrong against the Welsh yet finds himself on the bench.

But once Sean O'Brien was declared fit, he had to come in.

This could be one of the great back-row combinations to wear green, yet the chemistry has still to be proved. What better place to do it?

Much will depend on the performance of our tight five.

If Ireland keep a rein on the French scrum, it's game on for Stander, O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip.

How we perform in the scrum will be absolutely paramount. Devin Toner was a man possessed against the Welsh and he must demand at least that of himself again today.

Beyond that the Kearney bothers ought have little difficulty slotting in to the back three, although Andrew Trimble will have his work cut out in tracking Virimi Vakatawa, but no better man.

That and defending the wider channels with an even greater intensity and line-speed from last week, and in almost every other area we look strong.

Belfast Telegraph


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