If Ireland win this title, they’ll have earned it
It’s always been a crying shame O’Driscoll et al had so many second-place finishes
At least, if nothing else, Ireland have begun to fulfill their stated aim of turning the Aviva Stadium into a fortress.
Ironically, the starting point was arguably a defeat, namely that last play loss to the All Blacks in November, but the pulsating atmosphere generated by the team’s performance that day appears to have reverberated through to this championship, and this despite one early Sunday afternoon kick-off followed by two more on Saturday afternoons.
For the first time since Ireland returned to Lansdowne Road in the shape of the Aviva Stadium, Ireland have won all their home games in the Six Nations – and by a combined total of 84 points – to ensure Ireland are in a good place. Helped by kicking off last and knowing what will be required of them, their destiny will be in their own hands come 6pm local time (5pm Irish) on Saturday.
The mythical Grand Slam may have eluded them, and indeed a Triple Crown, but as Brian Moore observed in the Telegraph yesterday, Triple Crowns are comfort blankets for those who do not win titles, and O’Driscoll himself effectively said as much before the tournament started when admitting he would not take another Triple Crown if offered one there and then, preferring a Slam or, failing that, a title.
The term golden generation does not sit easily with just one title, even if they assuredly were a golden generation – with the baggage of history perhaps a factor when set against, by contrast, Wales’ rich history from the golden 70s.
It’s always been a crying shame O’Driscoll et al had so many second-place finishes, which would make another all the more anti-climactic, and given he led the rejuvenation in Irish rugby, while also providing inspiration for future generations, in a sense Irish rugby owes him another title.
A second title in Paris, given the Stade de France was where he announced himself to the world with that hat-trick, would be apt. Yet Ireland haven’t won there since, and furthermore have only beaten France once in 14 meetings since the victory in 2003, namely in the first leg of the ’09 Slam.
Admittedly, Ireland drew 17-all in Stade de France two years ago after leading 17-6 at half-time, as well as drawing 13-all last season having led 13-3 at the interval, and all four provinces won in France in the Heineken Cup this season, while Ireland could be said to have improved in the last two years.
Yet, it’s also worth noting Ireland will have to become the first team to beat one of the other top four teams away Championship to win the title, as all five previous games involving top four sides have been home wins; France beat England at home who beat Wales and Ireland at home, with the latter beating Wales at home, who beat France at home.
Away wins are hard in this tournament, nowhere more so than in Paris, where all visiting teams struggle for wins. France have duly won both their games in the Stade de France. Fired up for an entree with les rosbifs after two weeks in camp together, they benefitted from a lucky couple of bounces for two early tries by Yoann Huget, and then having been largely outplayed, conjured victory from the jaws of defeat with probably the try of the tournament so far.
Then there’s their utter unpredictability. When Ireland went to Paris in 1982 after clinching the Triple Crown and championship in their opening three matches, they had a month-long break going into their final game, whereupon a pointless France rang the changes and won 22-9.
They are not coming from such a low ebb this season, and a la reacning the World Cup final when seemingly even more dysfunctional, somehow contrive to sit third in the table with three wins out of four. Their surprisingly impassioned celebrations at the full-time whistle in Murrayfield point to a spirit in the group, as did their ability to extract a second late win from behind.
Their line-out was denuded in Murrayfield by the loss of both hookers, not to mention Yannick Nyanga joining Thierry Dusautoir on the sidelines. Yet the return of Dimitri Szarzewski after an ankle injury should rectify their misfiring line-out, which lost eight balls through an awful demonstration of dartsmanship in Murrayfield, while the return of Louis Picamoles will give them more go-forward.
Like Joe Schmidt, Philippe Saint-André will reveal his hand on Thursday morning, and could make further changes to the backrow, and perhaps opt for Remi Tales to start at outhalf after another unconvincing performance by Jules Plisson.
Plisson made a fairytale arrival into the Test arena when that grubber with his first touch was deflected into the onrushing Huget, but as anyone who watched him closely in the Amlin Challenge Cup final last May will testify, he takes the ball deep and his first instinct is often to turn sideways toward the touchline, thereby offering little threat to the opposition or the gain line, while doing few favours for those outside him.
Accordingly, much of their attacking game has been deep and shapeless, even off set-piece ball, and in Plisson’s defence this has not changed unduly with the introduction of Tales, suggesting their problems run much deeper than the occupancy of the outhalf position.
Yet, even without Nyanga and the wonderful Wesley Fofana, les bleus have real gamebreakers, notably in the back three, where they can perm any three from Huget (the tournament’s leading try scorer, though an unreliable defender), Bruce Dulin and Maxime Medard, or Hugo Bonneval. If Ireland win this title, they’ll have earned it.