Mentioning Rugby World Cup 2007 to some Irish players is like a red rag to the bull, but like it or not they’re back in this part of France tonight to take on Marc Lievremont’s side.
Apart from a brief visit to Edinburgh — where a second-string Irish side lost narrowly — the preparation for the southern hemisphere journey has been pretty flawless. It’s likely to get harder, though, and Irish coach Declan Kidney isn’t fooled by the upbeat mood in the camp.
It’s time to get out of the comfort zone, he figures, and Carton House in Co Kildare has been central to that contentment for the last few weeks.
“Like every player that gets a go, the longer he’s in the surroundings, the more comfortable he becomes,” he said.
“But it’s one thing training in Carton House, it’s quite another togging out in Bordeaux. It’d be a bit livelier I’d imagine!
“You’re either up for it or you’re not. If you get a chance to put on a jersey, whether it’s an Ireland jersey or a French jersey, there’s only one way to play. There is no hiding. You either play and put yourselves forward or otherwise you shouldn’t be out there.”
Lievremont has promised Ireland a hot reception but Kidney said the challenge was welcomed.
“That’s what the great thing is about going to the south of France, it’s a brilliant test match for us to have. Usually around test matches you might do 90% on yourself. We’ve been doing 99% on ourselves.”
Leo Cullen is delighted to get another chance to wear the captain’s armband and described it as a real challenge. But the double Heineken Cup winning skipper isn’t fazed.
“It’s a tough place to get wins but I enjoy the atmosphere and the challenge. When you’re younger, you can find it a bit daunting but as you get older, you kind of relish those challenges.
“I’m really excited about this weekend. It’s a big opportunity for a lot of players individually but also for the team to build momentum heading into the next few weeks. That’s what these games are about, building momentum for the World Cup.”
Ireland have picked a much stronger team but that’s just as well considering they have beaten the French just once in eight years. The pack contains five players likely to start the world cup opener against the USA on September 11 while Paul O’Connell and Jamie Heaslip are waiting on the wings.
Les Bleus are a particularly tough assignment when they play in the south of the country and Lievremont has named a formidable XV including Thierry Dusautoir and Imanol Harinordoquy.
Cullen, however, made it clear that Ireland are here to win. Last week’s outing against Scotland was, he suggested, a good exercise in forcing Ireland to think outside the box.
“Defensively,” he said, “we looked very comfortable for most of the game against Scotland, but one of the big things for us has been working on the shape of our attack and that will, of course, be easier if we have more ball.
“We have more experienced players this week and the game is easier when you’re playing on the front foot. We struggled to put Scotland though a number of phases but this week we have some good ball carriers.”
Teams can defend brilliantly without the ball, as Ireland did in Scotland, but ultimately those forced to play on the back foot usually lose. Kidney needn’t worry about his defence, but now he has to focus everything on the ability of his players to win primary possession and to use it better than Scotland did.
FRANCE: D Traille, V Clerc, D Marty, M Mermoz, A Palisson, F Trinh-Duc, D Yachvili; R S Marconnet, D Szarzewski, L Ducalcon, J Pierre, R Millo-Chluski, T Dusautoir, I Harinordoquy, Raphael Lakafia.
Replacements: G Guirado, J-B Poux, L Nallet, J Bonnaire, M Parra, D Skrela, M Medard, F Barcella.
IRELAND: R Kearney, A Trimble, K Earls, P Wallace, L Fitzgerald, R O'Gara, E Reddan; C Healy, R Best, M Ross, D O'Callaghan, L Cullen, D Ryan, D Leamy, S O'Brien.
Replacements: J Flannery, T Buckley, P O'Connell, J Heaslip, C Murray, F McFadden, F Jones.