It was the France of Platini, Giresse, and Tigana that mesmerised us first. Between 1982 and 1986, that generation of French footballers bewitched and bewildered those of us already hopelessly in love with the game of football. The only time most of us were caught on the fence was when they faced Brazil.
Their rugby counterparts were equally alluring. How quaint to think about it now, but the very sight of TV images from Paris offered a glimpse into an impossibly exotic world: One of funny coloured rugby balls, cockerels, the bearpit that was the Parc des Princes and a collection of backs who were as tantalising as their forwards were tough.
Blanco, Berbizier, Lafond, Sella, Dubroca. Their names alone made them a thing of wonder. They traumatised Irish sides for generations, home and away, and the punishment rarely let up even as the fortunes of their national team began to wax and wane into the new millennium and Ireland found their feet in the new professional age.
Which is why Sunday’s meeting of the sides in Cardiff is even bigger than this World Cup. Ireland haven’t lost to the French in four years now. Imagine that. That run of four games unbeaten makes victory this weekend as important in a Six Nations context as avoiding New Zealand in the quarter-finals.
How many times have we used or heard the line about how important the improving fortunes of our provincial sides against Top 14 opposition was for our national team when it came to their meetings with the French? Yet Ulster, Munster, and Leinster all fashioned famous victories over French clubs from 1999 on and little good it did Ireland.
Paul O’Connell’s record against them says it all. The start of O’Connell’s international career coincided with a dramatic upsurge in the Irish team’s fortunes, yet he had just one win against France in 13 attempts to his name until he bagged a second this year with the 18-11 victory at the Aviva Stadium. These boys have made Ireland suffer.
Most of us could relate to it. This column got saturated on Lansdowne Road’s old South Stand the day a late Thomas Castaignede penalty denied Ireland in 1999, we watched them end Keith Wood’s career in Melbourne with a wincing defeat four years later and reported on a similar hammering in Paris in 2006. We’ll just gloss over Croke Park in 2007.
It is against that backdrop that Ireland’s current run is to be so treasured — and can not be relinquished lightly. When Munster and Leinster claimed five Heineken Cups between them in seven years, we knew it wouldn’t last and it didn’t. The same applies now. Ireland must keep their foot applied securely to France’s throat.
And what better place to do it than Cardiff where a Grand Slam and three of those Heineken titles were claimed?
If sport has shown us anything, it is that cycles are harder to break the longer they go on. Psychology kicks in. Look at Arsene Wenger’s continuing failure to get one over on Jose Mourinho. Or how Tipperary held the whip hand over Kilkenny in the All-Ireland hurling championship for so long. Or Italy, who have never lost to Germany in a major football tournament.
New Zealand have yet to lose in 74 outings against Ireland, Scotland, and Argentina. The best that trio has managed is a total of four draws.
And the theory holds even more in individual sports. Take Maria Sharapova who has won 35 singles titles in her career, five of them majors, yet she hasn’t got one over Serena Williams since 2004.
Ireland’s agonising loss to the All Blacks two seasons ago may go down as one of the greatest sporting disappointments in this country’s history, but the French have been responsible for a significantly greater volume of hurt. In modern times alone they have deprived Ireland of a small nest of Six Nations titles.
Yet the DNA of the fixture has been altered dramatically in the space of just one World Cup cycle. Of the current Irish squad, a dozen of them have never lost to France. Another four have win-loss records of 50% or better while four again have never faced them. All told, that is 20 of the 31 whose experiences are either neutral or mostly positive.
Devin Toner is one of those with nothing but happy memories: In his case, two wins from two appearances. “Ah, at Under-21 level,” he said, laughing, when he was asked two days ago whether he had ever lost to them. “Yeah. that’s good for confidence. They don’t have a fear-factor (for Ireland). Having lost against us the last few times, that will aid in our favour.”
The French have been in bullish form. Their press spent much of last week bigging Ireland up until Italy threw an unexpected spanner in the works for Joe Schmidt with their best performance in a number of years at the Olympic Stadium. The impression from the opposition camp has been one of eagerness to hear the first whistle and make some statements.
More than one French writer has remarked on the fact that Ireland have yet to win a game between the pair at the World Cup.
France have won all three of the meetings in Durban, Melbourne, and Paris by 24, 22, and 22 points, respectively.
History, you could say, but it is a revealing insight into their mindset. In their eyes, France simply shouldn’t lose to Ireland.
Which is exactly why Ireland must remind them otherwise. Again.
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