If Ireland can maintain their consistency, glory beckons in Paris
French rugby not in a great current state but one lapse in concentration and they remain capable of stealing a match
I do not wish to be the dark cloud that wants to rain on your St Patrick’s Day parade but there is way too much expectation of an easy victory in Paris.
Be it the Stade Yves du Manoir, the Parc de Princes, or Stade de France, Paris has always been an exceptionally difficult place to win international rugby games.
As more than one old Irish warrior has told me, playing the French in Paris, with the spring sunshine on their backs, is second only in toughness to playing New Zealand at Eden Park.
Ireland’s record of one win in five decades is terrible. But since the formation of the Six Nations, no matter the opponent, statistics prove France rarely lose in Paris.
Ireland have a great opportunity to win the championship. However, the loose talk being tossed about, that as long as Ireland turn up victory is all but assured is garbage.
This will be a tougher battle to win than Twickenham.
Speculation that France will lack motivation because they cannot win the championship is laughable. To think France will lack desire in Paris is delusional in the extreme.
The good news is the current French team are playing poorly. As a lover of the game I lament the decline of the French national team.
The strength of all national teams is a direct reflection of their domestic competition and the philosophy of how that competition is played.
In 1995 when Jean-Claude Skrela and Pierre Villepreux were recruited from Toulouse to coach the French national team, they brought their philosophy of play with them. A high-tempo running game, with the emphasis on offloading and keeping the ball off the ground was brought to the international arena.
Up until the last few seasons French club rugby was exhilarating to watch and the foundation of the magical French philosophy. But the decline of the influence of the Toulouse philosophy on the style of rugby played in the Top 14 is the basis of the French team’s malaise.
The Toulouse philosophy also had a very strong emphasis on developing young players in their academy system. Over the last 15 years Toulouse players have dominated French selections.
Today Toulouse are mid-table and the Top 14 is filled with foreign players. There are only a handful of French eligible players in the key positions of hooker, tight head prop, scrumhalf and outhalf.
The financial stakes in the Top 14 are so huge that clubs are providing the most rudimentary financial support to their academies and the pressure from the owners to “not lose” is so great coaches are reluctant to play open rugby. Instead teams kick for territory and then hope for a penalty or a scrum. At every single scrum, the aim is not to liberate the ball and ignite the creativity of an attacking philosophy. The aim is to push so idiotically hard that the befuddled referee awards a penalty. It is an abomination on the game.
When watching the French national team I can see no discernible attacking system. The reason is that the players come from clubs that have no attacking philosophies.
I’m delighted to say that Ireland are a mirror image of the old French system. Schmidt has been recruited from Leinster after developing a ball-in -hand philosophy of play.
Like Skrela, he is now taking that to the international level. I have been calling for an Irish philosophy of play for a decade. Leinster, Munster and Ulster are playing similar attacking systems. This allows Ireland to play positive rugby, because they have provincial teams playing well-thought out attacking structures.
Les Kiss must also be pleased. The Irish defensive system has improved markedly, especially out wide. To have let in only 29 points compared to France who have conceded 78 is a remarkable achievement. How teams defend tells you about their spirit.
The spirit is strong is this Irish team.If they play with the same philosophy, passion and high accuracy they have displayed so far in the championship, they will create the opportunities required to grab a memorable victory in Paris.
One lapse in concentration and France will steal the match like they did against England. The French philosophy is dead but the brilliance of some individuals remains.
Triple Crowns are a sideshow and Grand Slams are a bonus. Winning the Championship is the alpha and the omega. Paris will be exceptionally tough. Consistency is the key ingredient in winning international competitions. If Ireland maintain their consistency in attack and defence, they will be worthy champions.