Ireland must exorcise demons in Paris

Conditions may be freezing in Paris but the Stade de France still represents a cauldron for Declan Kidney and his team, one which they rarely enjoy visiting.

Conditions may be freezing in Paris but the Stade de France still represents a cauldron for Declan Kidney and his team, one which they rarely enjoy visiting.

There’s one question which usually determines whether the Irish rugby community believe we have a shot of winning the Six Nations or not; are we playing France at home or away?

The main problem for Kidney and his staff is that the biggest barrier to Ireland’s chances of winning seems to lie in the top two inches, do they believe they can beat France in France? A question made trickier by the absence of Brian O’Driscoll who orchestrated Ireland’s only test match victory in France in the last thirty years.

While it’s true that the Irish provinces have usurped Top 14 outfits as the super-power in European club rugby, that form doesn’t necessarily translate to the international stage; if it did Wales surely would have suffered a convincing defeat in the Aviva last weekend.

Think back to Croke Park in 2007 and O’Gara’s 78th minute penalty which stretched the lead to four points, all that was needed was to see out one last phase of play, but on the verge of beating the French Ireland panicked and our tormentor-in-chief Vincent Clerc took full advantage.

One game into the 2012 Championship and Ireland are already looking at plan B, having fallen at the first hurdle against Wales. So what does Kidney do? How does he change things to show that this squad can adapt? It appears he does next to nothing.

The former Munster coach has named the same XV he selected last week, with Keith Earls due to start in place of Fergus McFadden who was a late call-up from the bench for the Wales game.

It’s almost as if Kidney has decided that this is man-for-man his best team and Earls’ omission last weekend means it wasn’t a fair portrayal of their capabilities.

This is despite the fact that the defeat to Wales highlighted problems in the backrow and proved that what’s missing in midfield isn’t Earls’ pace but some good old-fashioned bulk.

Most people who questioned Earls’ initial selection last week pointed at his suspect defence - more specifically that missed tackle on Manu Tuilagi last August – and many were more confident with McFadden slotting in at outside centre.

In the 55th minute of last Sunday’s game George North came infield off a lineout and powered through a twin-tackle from D’Arcy and McFadden before offloading to Davies for a try. It appears Ireland’s defensive frailties aren’t confined to Keith Earls.

It’s hard to say Earls would have stopped such a rampaging burst from North either, but that raises questions about the type of player Kidney should be looking to put into his midfield. Things won’t get any easier for Ireland against the Clermont partnership of Wesley Fofana and Aurelien Rougerie.

There’s no shortage of talent or firepower in Kidney’s backline but there is a case for putting either Bowe or Trimble into midfield to add some physicality, a case made stronger by the news that Munster are to sign powerhouse outside centre Casey Laulala, suggesting a return to the wing for Earls.

What’s more, all this debate about who can fill the number 13 jersey seems to have taken the heat off Gordon D’Arcy who still holds a monopoly on the inside centre role despite his dwindling impact on games.

Kidney will be hoping D’Arcy and Earls can withstand the inevitable battering they’ll receive on Saturday because if they don’t he may be forced to reshuffle his entire backline, something which would contradict his conservative nature.

Evidence of this conservatism comes in the second row where Kidney has again opted for the old combination of O’Connell and O’Callaghan despite the energy Donnacha Ryan showed in the last quarter of an hour against Wales.

The backrow represents a real selection headache for the Irish management staff. While Ferris, O’Brien and Heaslip are all players of Test match quality, their shared tendency towards ball carrying leaves the backrow unbalanced.

David Wallace’s absence means Ireland have no genuine openside, no one in the mould of McCaw, Pocock, Warburton or Dusautoir. Shane Jennings is Ireland’s best available forager at ruck time but he has never stepped up to mark on the international stage while injury rules Niall Ronan out of contention.

Wales had done their homework on Ireland’s big backrow unit and neutralised them in both the World Cup and last weekend’s encounter.

With Dusatoir keeping company with Harinordoquy and Picamoles in an all-star French backrow, Ireland must expect similarly brutal treatment. It’s up to Ferris and co. to raise their intensity and apply it not just in broken field running but crucially at the breakdown also.

There’s no hiding from the quality in the French line-up. That someone as talented and experienced as Morgan Parra can come in as a late replacement for Dimitri Yachvilli, with former Leicester Tigers star Julien Dupuy taking his place on the bench, tells you all you need to know about their strength in depth.

In fact the names on the French replacement’s bench are nearly more intimidating than the starting XV with the likes of William Servat, Lionel Nallet, Julien Bonnaire and Maxime Mermoz all ready to come on and make an impact at some stage for the World Cup finalists.

France didn’t exactly lay down a marker in their 30-12 victory over Italy last weekend. Les Bleus afforded the Italians plenty of possession and looked rudderless at times.

What will not have gone unnoticed by Kidney and his players however, is how clinical Saint-André’s men were in those brief passages they decided to push into top gear.

All four of the French tries last weekend were products of the backline with Rougerie and Malzieu creating scores out of nowhere in a deathly precise manner. With a genuine flyhalf in Trinh-Duc finally given the chance to conduct proceedings in the number 10 jersey it’s hard to spot the weakness in the French outfit.

Are Ireland good enough to go to the Stade de France and turn over the World Cup runners-up? Of course they are. Kidney has a squad of Lions, Grand-Slam victors and Heineken Cup winners at his disposal.

The problem is that Ireland have become more and more like the French in that we never know which team to expect.

Will we see the side who couldn’t buy a win going into the World Cup or the team who battered Australia in Eden Park? Will it be the outfit who failed to click for five of last year’s Six Nations or the cohesive unit who brilliantly denied England the Grand Slam?

We’ll find out tomorrow evening.

Prediction: The head speaks louder than the heart this time, France to win by two scores.

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