DONAL LENIHAN: France and the sitting ducks of 1982

Anyone expecting the French to pitch up in Dublin on Saturday and roll over after losing their opening three games in the Six Nations for the first time since 1982 had better think again.

With unfortunate timing, Philippe Saint-Andre finally got his selections right in their recent defeat by England but butchered any chance of winning with a flawed (and evidently preordained) use of his bench. Trust him to rectify the latest error of his ways by Saturday.

Ironically, the last time the French faced the ignominy of a championship whitewash, once again it was Ireland who offered the opportunity for redemption. The circumstances however, certainly from an Irish point of view, were slightly different.

Firstly, that game 31 years ago was played at the Parc des Princes, a venue where Ireland had never won to that point and failed to do in subsequent years in the championship. The shift to the Stade de France has only been slightly more accommodating, with the Brian O’Driscoll hat-trick inspiring our only win back in 2000, accompanied with a draw there last season.

Even when the venue was reinstated for the 2007 World Cup and Ireland finally had the chance to put the years of pain and frustration at the Parc des Princes to bed, Argentina unceremoniously dumped us out of the tournament with that painful 30-15 defeat.

Back in 1982, Ireland travelled to Paris in search of a first Grand Slam since 1948 with a Triple Crown and championship already in the bag. Trouble was in those days every country had a round of inactivity as their were only five teams in the tournament.

Unfortunately, our down time was between winning the Triple Crown against Scotland and that final game against the under pressure French, a period of four weeks.

Given the celebrations that followed that historic win over the Scots and the fact that we had no game to maintain our momentum, the team lost focus. In the meantime, France had recalled a few proven dogs of war up front with a view to salvaging something from the championship. We were sitting ducks.

It was my first experience of playing against the French and to say it was an eye-opener would be an understatement. When I see what players get yellow cards for nowadays and the penalties awarded for raking or stamping in a ruck, suffice to say France would have run out of forwards that day.

The scrum, which I came to appreciate from that day forward, was their first point of attack. The opening scrum of the contest has never left me. Defending on our 22, French loose head Pierre Dospital deliberately wheeled and dropped the scrum against Ginger McLaughlin. Moss Keane lost his footing and fell on top of me. Thereafter the entire French pack came waltzing over the top of us and we were spat out like crops from a combine harvester. To add insult to injury, English referee Alan Welsby awarded a penalty to the French. Net result, we were three points down. I was 22 and my international rugby education was enhanced a multitude in a 22-9 defeat.

The French deliberately targeted two of the Irish team, our captain Ciaran Fitzgerald and Ollie Campbell at out-half. Campbell’s body was so badly reefed after the game that team doctor Mick Molloy took a series of pictures to highlight the extent of the damage inflicted.

On the back of those three French defeats, we were complacent and paid a heavy price while the French could not countenance four defeats on the trot. The fact that Willie Duggan was forced to withdraw from the side on the eve of the game didn’t help. I’m convinced if we played them two weeks after that Scotland match, we would have won a Grand Slam.

Three months later the vast majority of those two sides had an unscheduled meeting at a tournament in Barcelona that coincided with the opening of the 1982 soccer World Cup. The French, under their national management, took a slightly more serious approach to the whole occasion but only managed to narrowly beat us in searing heat. The fact we were in holiday mode didn’t help either. My abiding memory of our visit to the home of FC Barcelona was the sight of Dospital and McLaughlin retiring to one of the bars in the stadium at half-time. The fact that one of them had no English and the other no French failed to impact in any way in their enjoyment of each other’s company. The next time we saw them was after the game, arms wrapped around each other, draped in the Belgian colours in a procession of the victorious supporters after they had shocked holders Argentina 1-0. Amateur rugby had that type of effect on you.

However, the bitterness from that physical pummelling in Paris lingered and when that French side returned to Lansdowne Road the following year with the vast majority of the same pack on board, we were ready and waiting. This time we were primed for a fight and that’s exactly what ensued. I still have a photo of the late great French tight-head prop Robert Paparemborde, his head draped in blood-soaked bandages, doing his best to resist yet another Irish forward surge. He failed and we won 22-16.

Just like what happened all those years ago in Paris, France will arrive in Dublin on Saturday looking for an Irish scalp to restore their tarnished pride and reputation. When in trouble over the last few years the Irish have, more often than not, been their salvation.

We have only won one of our last 13 encounters. The bottom line is, they don’t fear us in any way. A young England side, in the infancy of Stuart Lancaster’s reign, went to Paris last season and did what we invariably fail to do, win on French soil. Even Wales, on the back of eight successive defeats and their interim coach Rob Howley under all kinds of pressure, pitched up at the Stade de France a few weeks ago and won.

This French side are eminently beatable if they are put under pressure and hounded from the start, as Italy did in that sensational opening game in Rome. Ireland need to park all the baggage from Murrayfield and go for broke in this one because if they roll up at the Aviva Stadium vulnerable and lacking clarity, this French side will smell a victim and a path to a badly needed win. In contrast to us all those years ago, Ireland had better be ready for what’s about to come down the track.

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