Ferris’s return for his first piece of competitive action since Ulster’s Heineken Cup clash with Bath last month means Kevin McLoughlin is the unlucky man to lose out on a starting and squad place – though the Irish management insisted yesterday he made his mark against the Italians.
Irish manager Paul McNaughton and forwards coach Gert Smal insisted: “He was outstanding and it’s nice to have these choices going into the future.” said McNaughton. “(But) Stephen is a top player, he is a Lion, he ran really well in training this week and is looking big, strong and fit.”
Smal added: “He has huge physicality, he’s a very good ball carrier and his defence is very good. He’s an outstanding player. Over the years he did struggle to get good continuity in a couple of games. That may have been a slight problem in his development in certain ways but also in his fitness. So hopefully he can start getting a good run and we will see the real Stephen Ferris. I really think he’s an outstanding player and can contribute so much to Irish rugby going forward,” he said.
Smal believes the outcome of this Six Nations game could well be decided by what happens in the back row but is confident Ireland has what it takes to be more than competitive. “Well, they’re all athletes. It’s one of the best combinations in world rugby. At this level, all games are tough. Those are the challenges and that’s what test rugby is all about.”
Irish defence coach Les Kiss has been working overtime to figure out how to combat a powder keg French attack and so barely lifted his head to notice Les Bleus have their own injury concerns.
He remarked: “With French rugby, when they get a couple of injuries they bring in players of equal if not better quality so we’ll have to be on our toes. Vincent Clerc scored seven tries in five games recently; the French at home score a lot of tries so they’ll be out to play a lot of open rugby.”
As Keith Earls gears up to face Clerc, the feeling within the camp is that the youngster will be up to the challenge. McNaughton observed: “Keith is getting better known in Europe by the day. He’s had a good series in the Heineken Cup so certainly the French have seen him there and they would have seen him on the Lions tour too. But it’s his first Six Nations start so they may not be as familiar with him as with Tommy (Bowe) and with Brian (O’Driscoll) and Gordon (D’Arcy).”
Kiss, given his responsibility of pointing the Irish defence in the right direction, deserves the last word, particularly given the presence of Mathieu Bastareaud in the middle of the pitch.
His solution? “I don’t know,” he said, “Maybe we need 17 people in there to handle him. Without doubt, they’re using those power bases that they have in midfield – Jauzion at 12 and Bastareaud at 13. They’ve got some strength there. But we just have to keep turning up and owning up.”
The French continued their less-than-fulsome appraisal of the Irish yesterday with second row Lionel Nallet describing Declan Kidney’s Grand Slam champions as “effective”, adding “their game does not make me jump”.
“It will be a big fight to deliver face as we face stronger opponents than the Scots, especially up front,” Nallet said.
“This will be an interesting team. They (Ireland) are a European reference since they last won the tournament. But we’re here, too. We are also a reference. I do not see them as the best in the world.
“They are effective but their game does not make me jump. We have other ambitions at this level.
“It will be up to us mentally not to fall into their trap and make mistakes,” added 33-year-old Castres star Nallet.
“It is known and the coaches have insisted that they tend to lose on our turf. We must find solutions so that they do not (change that).”