Ireland’s record in Paris means the squad will be on its guard when they travel there next month, but Sean O’Brien has no qualms about admitting that Joe Schmidt’s side should be winning in the Stade de France if they are to be the team they aspire to be.
To put it another way, they need to show they are every bit as good as England.
Second in the championship table behind Eddie Jones’ team in 2017, Ireland begin their latest Six Nations assault on the outskirts of the French capital in just over four weeks, taking on a host that is in all sorts of turmoil. Jacques Brunel will have had just five weeks to prepare his players, the former Italy coach having assumed the reins from Guy Noves, whose tenure was ended abruptly after a debilitating record of just seven wins in 21 games.
Win that opener and Schmidt can look to three home games on the spin — against Italy, Wales and Scotland — before ending the campaign on St Patrick’s Day away to an England side likely to be chasing a third straight title.
It could well be that one or both sides have all sorts of prizes to squabble over on that last day — Triple Crown, Championship and Grand Slams included — but Ireland’s unforeseen loss in Scotland on opening day last year will inform their approach to the first fence.
“We should be beating [France] if we want to go places,” O’Brien agreed. “You know we have to start well. We know from last year what happened if you don’t start well. So, again, we’ve learnings from that. We’ll make sure we hit the ground running.”
The change of coach may make the French — excuse the cliché — a tad unpredictable, but O’Brien chose a different route in replying to the idea that Ireland need to discover a level of consistency to match that shown by England under Jones: Played 23, won 22, lost 1.
“I don’t think there’s much [between] any of the international teams. Some of the games we lost last year were our own fault. The first one, obviously. Fine margins. If you look at England, they ground out some wins, but they played well at times when they needed to.
“They have done the right things and they probably evolved a little bit that way, but, yeah, they’ve been a consistent team, a big squad, and he has them playing a style of rugby that everyone knows what’s going on, so, is there much between us…?”
O’Brien answered that with a shrug, but the inference was clear. As Lions coach Warren Gatland knows, O’Brien doesn’t mince his words and he spoke yesterday about the work Schmidt has done in building the depth of an Ireland squad that is being fitted out for action in Japan next year.
Much of the new blood is emanating from O’Brien’s Leinster base in UCD and the Carlow man has had plenty of time to admire it all, as he recovers from a hip injury suffered in Champions Cup action against Exeter Chiefs last month.
Absent for the recent Munster and Connacht interpros, he will also sit out Saturday’s meeting with Ulster. The hope is that he will be ready to resume the week after that, when Glasgow pitch up in Dublin for more European fare.
The influx of new crew to steer the Leinster ship, and the alacrity with which they have found their sea legs, has been astonishing this last two seasons and the latest evidence of that was presented at the RDS against Connacht.
The back row, in particular, was incredible. Josh van der Flier recorded a club record 34 tackles in a league game, Max Deegan shone on both sides of the ball and scored a try, while Dan Leavy made another couple of exceptional poaches, before being forced off too early with a back injury.
Is O’Brien worried?
“I’m comfortable enough in my own skin,” he said through a smile.
“No, as I said already, you’d expect them lads to do that... I know, when I am fit, that I can mix it with them all, so that’s what I need to be: fit.”
The new kids are learning quickly. Experiences such as the semi-final losses to Scarlets and Clermont Auvergne last season have only accelerated their educations and O’Brien has seen them buy into, and evolve, the culture of the dressing room.
Leadership roles will be the next step for some, among them James Ryan.
“James is stone mad. Paulie was mad too, but in a different way. You can’t really compare. Everyone is comparing him to Paulie, but, physically, he is a specimen, He is a young man who is going to get bigger. He is a very good rugby player, so he could be better than Paulie.”
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