THE FRENCH CAPITAL is a beautiful, wondrous, thrilling city but equally there is a dark, dirty, frightening side to Paris.
For Ireland’s rugby team, the latter picture has been the prevailing one in their history of facing les Bleus, but today represents their best chance in some time to begin the reversal of a trend that has, at times, seemed set in stone.
Sometimes one needs to step away from something to appreciate its true efficiency, its real value. A swift tour through the French media’s coverage of this evening’s game would be an eye-opening one for those who have doubted the impact of Joe Schmidt’s coaching.
Ireland have a powerful scrum, John Plumtree’s maul is virtually unstoppable, Schmidt is a genius and a generous man, the Irish midfield loop play offers multiple options in attack, the line-out is superb with Devin Toner at its heart, Brian O’Driscoll is finishing in peak form; the superlative fountain has almost run dry.
And all the while, the French rugby population has eaten away at their own team, picking out the many faults that have resulted in largely lacklustre form both this year and in 2013.
Ireland are a better team, they will win at the Stade de France. If only our sport was so straightforward. But why shouldn’t it be? Schmidt has built belief within his squad, there is utter trust in his game plan and the players know they are better prepared than the French.
Yesterday’s captain’s runs at the Stade de France offered an interesting juxtaposition of the current moods of the two sides. Ireland strode onto the pitch in the mid-afternoon sunshine and the positivity amongst the players was palpable in the jokes and energy.
In contrast, the French waited until the evening to carry out their team run, showing brow-furrowed determination in cooler conditions. Captain Pascal Papé gathered his men in a huddle and spoke for a full five minutes, with a negatively-driven animation.
Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
How quickly those moods can be switched though, the positions swapped. France have the individual players to cut through Ireland’s so-far solid defence. The likes of Brice Dulin, Yoann Huget and Louis Picamoles can create tries from nowhere.
France have not shown anything in this year’s Six Nations to suggest that they are a better team than Ireland, but that is no guarantee that they will not win this evening. Ireland have shown everything to suggest they are a better team than France, but again there are no guarantees.
Schmidt, Plumtree and Les Kiss have added something fresh to the tactical mix with each passing week, from the territorial kicking against Wales to the thirst to keep the ball in play versus the Italians. What will they offer up to unsettle the French?
We can trust in the coaching team to deliver the goods in terms of game plan and preparation, so it comes down to Ireland’s players. Sexton has spoken of his desperation to win a trophy in green, O’Driscoll hungers to retire in success and the more youthful pillars like Conor Murray and Peter O’Mahony want to launch their legacy.
All the motivation is there for Ireland, and when those less tangible factors are melded to the team’s framework, one is filled with cautious belief that Schmidt’s men will emerge with the win they need.
Like any high-stakes game, there are doubts and fears, although those can be a stimulus for performance, as Paul O’Connell might agree. It takes two to tango in Paris, and les Bleus will be determined to lead the dance with their counter-attacking moves, but Ireland have much in their favour.
Either way, a fascinating game awaits. This is the Six Nations at its finest: difficult to call, a contrast of styles and sheer excitement.