Alittle bit of luck, some inspiration from Martin O’Neill’s footballing heroes and a firm belief in the collective strength of his own players.
Joe Schmidt knows it takes more than just talent and motivation to win a rugby Test match but the Ireland head coach believes he has the ingredients to beat France for a third time in succession when the rivals clash for World Cup Pool D honours in Cardiff tomorrow.
One does not need to be an aficionado of what makes rockets launch into space to understand there is very little between these two sides heading to the Millennium Stadium for their 4.45pm showdown under the roof.
The history of the last two seasons of Six Nations contests with Philippe Saint-Andre’s sides, as well as the two draws that preceded them under Declan Kidney’s watch, have confirmed that much.
In this world of fine margins, Schmidt and Ireland will take any piece of help they can get, including that wonder strike by Shane Long on Thursday night, when O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland defeated world champions Germany at the Aviva Stadium.
“I am not sure that they need too much more motivation,” Schmidt said of his players yesterday after unveiling his matchday squad to face the French.
“It probably does contribute a little bit to confidence; they see other Irish teams that are underdogs step up and knock off the current giant of football. Sometimes also even Sir Alex Ferguson said you definitely need a bit of luck and I’d say we are conscious of that.
“We had a bit of luck in Paris two years where (substitute half-back Jean-Marc) Doussain missed a penalty kick that he might have otherwise got and we won by two points; it might have been a one point win for them.
“There is always narrow margins, I’ve no doubt that the Irish football team last night massively deserved their victory but there was probably one or two shots on goal by a German team that you are willing them to miss but it was pretty nerve-wracking in that last quarter.”
Schmidt, who recalled Devin Toner to the second row at Iain Henderson’s expense, switched Cian Healy for Jack McGrath at loosehead prop and retained Keith Earls ahead of Jared Payne at outside centre, has endured his fair share of nervy conclusions during his time as Ireland boss and experienced both outcomes.
Two wins from two against France in the back-to-back Six Nations title campaigns point to a superiority over Saint-Andre’s side but with an aggregate winning points margin of just nine, the head coach is taking nothing for granted, particularly now the opposition are free of the Top 14 constraints that annually hamper their progress through the championship.
That freedom has been evident in their demeanour this week, confidence exuding from the French camp, their suggestion that the pressure is all on the Irish and the attempts to get in the head of Ireland playmaker Johnny Sexton by labelling him his team’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic and making no effort to disguise their objective to target the fly-half throughout the 80 minutes.
For all Schmidt’s awareness, admiration of France’s talents, and their extended preparation since playing Canada nine days ago, the Irish boss was the essence of confidence yesterday, his convictions based in the power of the unity of purpose he sees in his squad on a daily basis. “The collective,” he said. “They are just such a good group and they work hard for each other. It’s one of the things I love most about the game. I think it is the most inter-dependent team sport you can have.
“There were two guys who touched the ball for Shane Long to score. It’s not often that that happens in rugby. There are a lot of moving parts in a rugby game and a lot of inter-dependence on people doing their jobs.
“I just like the way this group works so hard for each other and they make it hard for opposition to break them down as a result and they exert pressure on opposition as a result, and I’m hopeful that we can do that despite my respect for the French players and the collective, they are more collective than I have ever seen them.
“Three months together will do that for a team. I think that they sense there is pressure on them as well. I think for it to be said all the pressure is on us, I wouldn’t think that solely is the case. I think they are two very evenly matched teams.
“Even in results, we have had very narrow margins over them. If you look at the last four matches, there is a collective points difference of nine points. The fact that we haven’t lost any of those four you don’t have to be a mathematician to say those margins aren’t very big and they know that. They know they are better prepared because they have had more time together. They know that no one has had to go back and play Top 14 in between times before our match.
“And that is going to make them really tough to beat but I do believe our collective will make it hard for us to be beaten and hopefully that is so hard that it doesn’t quite happen.”
Schmidt clearly believes he has a team with the ability and spirit to make the narrow margins count for Ireland.
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