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Tony Ward: Why French renaissance poses major threat to Irish hopes

Eye-catching: Thomas Ramos has stood out for France
Eye-catching: Thomas Ramos has stood out for France

By Tony Ward

Growing up as a sports fanatic in the Sixties and Seventies it was Real Madrid, Ajax and Brazil who stoked my fire. I would like to say Leeds, too, but that would be pure blinkered on my part so we'll stick with the aesthetically proven and the teams that inspired this south Dublin wannabe to be part of the beautiful game.

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As has been well recorded, my loyalties were split between round ball and oval.

In rugby as a follower and as a player it was the French and the Welsh who made the code equally appealing in my eyes. Both nations were winners but what made it special was the pazazz. They did the donkey work or in modern parlance earned the right to go wide but when they did, it embraced style and panache.

Even still the names pre-professionalism trip off the tongue... JPR Williams, Gerald Davies, Ray Gravell, Stevie Fenwick, JJ Williams, Barry John, Phil Bennett and of course the most complete rugby player of them all, Gareth Edwards.

For Les Bleus there was Jean Michael Aguirre, Serge Blanco, Roland Bertranne, Phillippe Sella, Jo Maso, Patrice Lagisquet, Didier Camberabero, Franc Mesnel, Jean Baptiste Lafond, Pierre Berbizier and of course 'Le Petit Caporal' Jacques Fouroux (the original little general of the species).

We travelled to Stade Colombes and Parc Des Princes with trepidation in those days. Excitement, yes, but fear of kicking away cheap possession (the mere thought of box kicking would have been abhorrent at that time) and what the exhilarating French would do on the counter.

Speculative kicking was a tactical no brainer. If you did your thing badly then, by God, did they do theirs to perfection.

Fast forward to this decade and not alone have they lost their way in terms of winning but the rugby playing style (using that word is probably a misnomer in itself) has been ugly in the extreme. Not even pragmatic, just downright ugly.

The two games I dread each year are the Italians (although travelling away is for cultural reasons more than tolerable) as it is a non contest given the likely outcome known well in advance and the fixture against France.

Playing the French whether here or in Stade de France has become an annual dog eat dog war of attrition with the only positive from an Irish perspective the fact we are winning a match we almost always lost.

Maybe I, too, am becoming a victim of our success and the growing level of expectation but with hand on heart I have come to dread this 80 minutes 'murder ball bash' every year.

But maybe, just maybe, there is a glimmer of hope flickering on the horizon if we are to take Toulouse and Racing 92 as a pre-Six Nations indicator to a changing domestic mindset. In the opening 40 against the Welsh and the comfortable win a fortnight ago over the Scots, little green shoots, specifically through Thomas Ramos, Yoann Huget, Romain Ntamack and Antoine Dupont, were showing.

The jury is still out in judgement of the right midfield combination and it would be nice to see Teddy Thomas involved although Damian Penaud, too, has great potential. Miracle upon miracles, the French through Jacques Brunel field the same starting line-up for the second game running.

As for us? With the exception of Robbie Henshaw, probably the strongest starting 15 we can field at this point in time. And that is as it should be, given the tournament point and more specifically the context of this game.

It goes without saying we are in 'must win' territory but even that is not enough. We have not played with any sort of conviction in the three rounds to date.

Of course the players will circle the wagons and trot out the 'all is dandy' line when questioned about collective confidence and/or morale. What else would you expect them to say or do when asked to comment on team-mates, friends and most pertinently peer rivals?

There is nothing that is beyond fixing but a collective performance of substance is badly needed. A win with conviction and the trek to Cardiff takes on a new meaning entirely.

The goal for tomorrow should be that each and every one of the 23 delivers an individual performance appropriate to the best that he can be.

From that the various units will grow in confidence and the type of performance we took for granted six months ago will follow as sure as night and day.

In order to get that mojo back we need each and every individual to question himself in moments of crisis and leave it to management to look after the rest. We are a talented squad in which the whole at this point does not represent the sum of its parts.

Head coach Joe Schmidt too has a 'shape up' role to play. Only he knows if he is in the same place psychologically as 12 months ago. We are still two Six Nations wins from three in a World Cup year with everything to play for.

Sir Alex Ferguson regrets declaring his leaving Old Trafford ahead of his final season.

For Joe there must be no such afterthought.

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