Fate has decreed that Ireland meet their World Cup conquerors in their opening game. The French in Paris is a difficult assignment at the best of times and for a variety of reasons today will be no different. Melbourne aside, our recent record against the French has been very impressive with three championship victories in the past four meetings, but an element of fear hangs over today’s encounter.
On the face of things, the French have recovered well from their mauling by England in the World Cup semi-final last November. On the club scene, they have three sides in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup. The trouble with the French is that one never knows what frame of mind they are in until they arrive on the field. In the World Cup they looked the most exciting and well-balanced team in the tournament until the semi-final. When the weather turned nasty, the French threw in the towel. As Clive Woodward commented afterwards, it rains in France too.
For Ireland, the build up to this championship has been particularly difficult due to their growing injury list. In the modern game an attrition rate of 25% is the norm for professional squads. So while the number of injuries is not unusual, fate has decreed that our three most potent attacking weapons, Geordan Murphy, Denis Hickie and Brian O’Driscoll are now all absentees.
The other issue that won’t have helped in the build up to this game is the speculation surrounding Declan Kidney’s future. Kidney is a professional to his fingertips and will hate the unwanted publicity on the eve of such an important fixture.
All of a sudden Gordon D’Arcy, who failed to make the World Cup squad less than four months ago, has been hailed as a saviour. D’Arcy is an extremely talented player who is finally living up to his early promise. His performances at outside centre in the Heineken Cup for Leinster have been outstanding. He is deserving of his opportunity today. However, one feels that it is in defence that Ireland will have to be most organised. That vital sector left them down badly when the two sides met in Melbourne.
For Ireland to compete today they must stop the French at halfback. Frederic Michalak had an outstanding World Cup until pressurised by the English in Sydney. All of a sudden he looked like a boy in a man’s world. As the game progressed his confidence drained until he was finally replaced by the now retired Gerald Merceron. His form since for Toulouse has been mixed and the player himself admits to being exhausted after his exploits down under. It is vital therefore that Keith Gleeson plays in his face from the outset. Michalak will also be without Fabien Galtie at scrum half. Recognising this fact, French coach Guy Laporte has selected his halfback partner from Toulouse, Jean Baptist Ellasade. Ireland may have been better served if the French stuck with Galthie’s understudy, Dimitri Yachvili.
Apart from the injuries, Eddie O’Sullivan has made some key selection decisions for this game. Historically, Ireland has suffered from a lack of strength in depth in certain positions. Nowhere is this more evident at present than at full-back. For Girvan Dempsey the last few months have been difficult. Throughout the Heineken Cup he seemed to suffer from a major crises of confidence.
However, given the injury to Murphy and the decision to play D’Arcy at outside centre, the options were limited. Neither Paddy Wallace nor Jeremy Staunton has made the breakthrough at fullback. Munster’s Sean Payne has looked the most competent player in this position this season. Yet at 32 years of age, the Irish management have obviously decided that his selection would be a backward step at this stage.
Contrast this situation with the options available to France for the No. 15 jersey alone. Nicolas Brusque plays today and deservedly so given his recent form with Biarritz. Other players under consideration were Elhorga, Poitreneaud and Jean Jean. And Thomas Castaignede wasn’t even considered. What would Ireland give for one of them.
At out half, Ronan O’Gara gets the nod on the basis of his outstanding performance against Bourgoin. The revolving door that has characterised the selection at number 10 in recent seasons hasn’t done any favours to either David Humphreys or O’Gara. At this stage the team would be better served by sticking with one for the entire championship.
Up front, the major selection issues, after Marcus Horan was ruled out by injury, centred on hooker and second-row. On the basis that Frankie Sheahan hasn’t played for four weeks, it was an easy decision to pick Shane Byrne. The choice between Malcolm O’Kelly and Donnacha O’Callaghan was more complex. In order to subdue the French, it is vital that the Irish compete successfully in the set piece. As a result, O’Sullivan has opted for the ball-winning capability of Paul O’Connell and O’Kelly at the lineout. On the other hand, O’Kelly’s work rate is nowhere near that of O’Callaghan and his amazing facility to concede penalties in vital areas is a major handicap to his team.
An Irish victory in Paris today would be a great achievement. Despite talk of revenge for Melbourne, anything other than a French victory would be a major shock. And one I can’t see happening.