14 March 2014

History beckons for Ireland

Irish supporters are daring to dream that we can become 6 Nations Champions for the second time in five years. The team have proven to be consistent in their performances throughout the tournament.

At the same time few will argue that England are right there with Ireland in terms of their performances and some may even argue they are the best team in this year’s tournament. It is fair to say they were just a couple of minutes from defeating France in Round 1 and that would have guaranteed them the Grand Slam in Rome this weekend.

But that game slipped from their grasp and they now find themselves with an almost impossible task to win the Championship, unless of course France do them a favour and beat Ireland.

But that is unlikely based on the French team we have witnessed as the Championship has progressed. It is by any standard a poor French team, probably the poorest in living memory.

Their set piece, both scrum and line-out, is struggling to deliver a reliable supply of quality ball with which to attack. Even when they secure possession they seem to lack any semblance of a game plan and are content to play from one-off runners and slow ruck ball. That has proven not to trouble the modern defence systems they have encountered throughout the tournament.

Defensively they have been disorganised and sloppy, slipping off tackles and like their attack, generally making it up as they go along. Discipline has been poor and they are conceding needless penalties.

Their Coach, Philippe Saint-Andre, seems to be at war with his players and has employed a revolving door selection policy despite being short some key players through injury.

It is difficult to find any redeeming features about this French team.

Ireland on the other hand had been ultra efficient throughout the tournament. Their game plans have been well constructed and accurately executed by the team. The only team that could contain them was England and that took a Herculean defensive performance in Twickenham to achieve that.

Ireland look very comfortable in their skins and the players seem to be enjoying the tasks set for them throughout the Championship. They look to be a team on a mission arriving in Paris.

The Irish players must believe that this is their best opportunity in a long time to put France to the sword in Paris. While at the same time they must expect some improvement in the French performance for Murrayfield.

But it is hard to see where the French can improve to the extent they can fix all the problems they have encountered thus far in the Championship.

France’s best moments in their four games to date have been based on individual moments of brilliance. At this point in time that is all they have going for them. It can be potent and devastating as England learned with a few minutes remaining on the clock in Paris.

But without some more of that individual brilliance they have no chance against Ireland. To that end Ireland must deny them the opportunity of creating those moments of brilliance. The threat comes at outside centre in the form of Gaél Fickou. The innocence and exuberance of youth has the potential to cause problems for Ireland.

But Ireland have the most experience rugby player in the world marking young Fickou. That battle will be intriguing but expect the maestro to give the young pretended a lesson.

France have also plenty of fire power in the Back Three with Dulin, Huget and Medard all capable of cutting loose. Ireland kicking game will have to be on the money and expect a lot of ‘contestables’ from Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray and Rob Kearney.

Also expect Ireland to employ the maul, as the French will cough up penalties if they can’t stop it rumbling forward. Ireland will also speed up the game at every opportunity to test the French for fitness. That strategy paid huge dividends in the final quarter against Italy when Ireland scored four tries in Dublin.

From their weekly experience in the Top 14, the French are used to a more pedantic pace on the game, interspersed with sporadic burst of high intensity. If Ireland can keep the ball alive for long periods, which they know they can do, France will struggle to stick with them.

On the face of it Ireland are the better team and barring a cataclysmic change in fortunes for France, history beckons for the men in green.