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Ireland no longer fear the French and have what it takes to win


Key player: the French will target Johnny Sexton in a bid to gain a foothold in the match

Key player: the French will target Johnny Sexton in a bid to gain a foothold in the match

?INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Key player: the French will target Johnny Sexton in a bid to gain a foothold in the match

It is 28 years and eight World Cups since the inaugural tournament and the game as we now know it is unrecognisable from what it was back in 1987.

Players today are not just bigger, fitter and stronger but so much more skilful as well. That is as it should be given that they are full-time professionals, whereas we held down full-time jobs and played rugby for fun.

Professionalism and sports science have created an entirely new product.

I find it disappointing when new fans dismiss those who went before as being somehow out of touch with the game's evolution.

Whether it's a better game is another argument, but in one core way it has remained the same and that is in terms of psychology. Show me the coach who claims to have cracked the perfect preparation to every game and I'll show you a king-size bluffer.

Coaches in every sport at all levels try to replicate whatever it was they did that achieved the desired performance/result in the previous game. There is no magical formula to guarantee optimum performance.

What there is, however, is optimum preparation whereby the individual and collective psyche is such in the build-up that a coach knows his team will deliver the appropriate level of performance, irrespective of the result.

That in most simplistic terms is the principle upon which Joe Schmidt works. It is his attention to detail - and it can be hugely intense - that sees his charges go the extra mile.

I felt, like most people, that the Italian job would be a lot more straightforward than it turned out to be.

Control possession and the scoreboard would look after itself - that is what Schmidt's Ireland team does best.

But when mental standards drop in the build-up, an unwanted subconscious element called complacency seeps into the collective mindset.

You know it's there and, while in a perverse sort of way you try to address it through ignoring it, you can just sense it's there. The Italian hurdle was always set to be a step up from the Canadian and Romanian obstacles that went before.

I suspect it was a with a little bit of tongue in cheek that Sean O'Brien suggested "we got a rude awakening on the physicality side of things against the Italians".

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Whatever else, Italian rugby and brutish physicality go hand in hand. We got what we expected from the Azzurri but we weren't in the right psychological frame.

It happens and in the context of this World Cup it was the right game for it to happen in, given the mother of all battles set to unfold at the Millennium tomorrow. It was disappointing and unexpected, but I don't think it will impact upon tomorrow's performance.

We are back-to-back Six Nations champions on the basis of working longer, grafting harder, playing to the maximum of our collective ability, but more than anything through doing the simple things well.

We aren't pretty to watch and let's not pretend otherwise.

But if, to borrow from the Jack Charlton era, we 'put 'em under pressure' with our by now mandatory but highly effective kicking game, then the end will justify the means.

Simon Zebo need have no worries when warning against "silly offloading in attack". The core problem against the Italians went far deeper than that. The body language at the Olympic stadium suggested that Ireland just wanted to get the job done with the minimal level of intensity.

Tomorrow is still the 50-50 game it was always set to be. We could well finish second but you can be sure of a level of performance light years removed from last week.

The charm offensive is well under way with Ian Madigan praising Freddie Michalak's game-running ability and Philippe Saint-Andre pulling a beauty when declaring "we French don't fear Ireland".

What has changed in recent times, specifically under Schmidt, is that we no longer fear the French.

Apart from our poor line-speed in defence, the aspect that most disappointed me wasn't our over-reliance on box kicking, but our slew of poorly-executed little grubbers which gift-wrapped possession to our hungrier opponents.

We need to hold on to possession far better. It's not that the French will run riot as in the counter-attacking days of yore, but if you gift cheap possession, you won't get it back without paying a price on the scoreboard. This French side is happy to win ugly. Les Bleus will target Johnny Sexton, Les Verts will look to get at Freddie Michalak.

If both squads play to the best of their ability, then we have what it takes. I fear the match officials will be tested to the limit and beyond.

Ireland by a whisker.

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