IRELAND TAKE ON France in Paris this Saturday almost certain in the knowledge that a win will secure the Six Nations Championship.
There are other permutations (like, if England lose, or win by more than 50 points then it will get really interesting) but until either of those shocks happen we’ll plan for the middle ground and try to predict what the Championship’s final game will bring.
I just can’t shake this horrible feeling.
I’ve had it since seeing Ireland reach the peak of their powers in November; then my gut-wrenching scenario was that Ireland would head to Paris looking for a Grand Slam and fall at the final hurdle.
The Slam is long gone, but the same set-up exists. Win, and the Championship is Ireland’s, but history says we’ll fumble it into someone else’s hands.
“42 years; one win, one draw,” says Brian O’Driscoll, reminding us of the woeful record in Paris. Sure we haven’t lost to Les Bleus since they sulked their way to within an inch of the World Cup, but nor have we beaten them. Twice we have met with Philippe Saint-Andre’s side at a low ebb and on both occasions we were unable to put them away despite opening up decent leads at home and away.
Joe Schmidt’s only away Test so far was a brilliant contest, but it was still a defeat. At home, Ireland have not won a close game – yes, it’s to their credit that the winning margins have been comfortable, but – clutch plays that win tight, one score games is a habit which is not evident in this side yet.
The final stages at Twickenham bore some worrying marks of a side who were a little too eager to impress. Late on, there was a big chance to slow everything down on the edge of the 22, salvage a draw and knock England out of the Championship. The chance was lost and by the time full-time comes in Stade de France on Saturday we might already be left wondering ‘what if’.
I think Ireland are going to win in Paris because they’re a better team than France. That belief is obviously based on current form and ability, rather than history and our record in Paris, but that’s how Schmidt’s men have to think if they are to get the job done. The Kiwi is the best coach in this championship, in my opinion, and gives Ireland an advantage over the French.
In the crucial position of out-half, Ireland are going to have the better player, whether Les Bleus pick Jules Plisson, Rémi Talès. While the French are more powerful as individuals and will massively test Ireland’s defence with their running ability, I think Ireland’s superior cohesion and tactics will pull them through.
It’s going to be as evenly contested as the clash against England, but I feel Ireland will have learned from that game and find ways to pick up more scores when they visit the French 22. It’s going to take Ireland’s best performance under Schmidt, bettering what they did against the All Blacks, but they have the ability and belief to pull it off.
I am not as confident as Murray but I believe Ireland will get over the line and that Jonny Sexton will play a huge part in getting us there. The fact that Sexton has played at the stadium for Racing Métro on a couple of occasions this season is a tangible positive of his move to Paris.
The O’Driscoll factor will not be as prevalent in France but there is no doubt that his presence steels and inspires this team. If Paul O’Connell can reproduce his Welsh form (or the performance he put in for Munster against Gloucester at Kingsholm) then Ireland will be well set. The scrum and the rolling maul have been hugely impressive all tournament and did not get what they deserved at Twickenham. Let us hope that Steve Walsh rewards the dominant pack as I think it will be Ireland’s.
The niggly question marks are the French back three. I’m worried about Maxime Medard as he has been too quiet for too long. Rob Kearney is back to his best in attack but France will be looking to isolate him in defence and put balls through for Medard and Yoann Huget to chase. Let us hope that whatever kinks Kearney was working on in training this week have been solved.
The deciding factor is the Irish coaching staff and the change they have brought to a listless team. Les Kiss and John Plumtree are proving their worth — Ireland’s defence has been stingy, penalty concessions are rare and the rolling maul is an offensive bazooka. Then there’s Schmidt — a man manager who also sees the wider picture. His game-plans for all four games have been fascinating. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with against the French. I wager it will be the winning difference.