Cheika thinks it's too close to call


GERRY THORNLEY,  Rugby Correspondent,  talks to former Leinster coach Michael Cheika about Ireland's chances of beating France

THE FRENCH clubs may have succeeded in having this weekend’s rearranged RBS Six Nations game between France and Ireland rescheduled for Sunday, so as to avoid a clash with the full round of Top 14 fixtures tonight and tomorrow, but they are still none too thrilled with it taking place this weekend.

The Saturday clash between the top two of Clermont and Toulouse has been seriously diluted. The two sides make up two-thirds of the French starting XV. Toulouse lead the Top 14 table by eight points, with Toulon a further nine adrift of Clermont.

Already without eight of his first-choice squad in the original French selection, Guy Noves has also been deprived of Maxime Medard’s replacement, Clement Poitrenaud, while Clermont are missing six of their frontliners.

Next worst affected are Michael Cheika’s Stade Français, who currently hold down the sixth and last play-off and Heineken Cup qualifying place by a point from Racing Metro after the latter’s recent draw in Stade de France courtesy of Matt Giteau’s last-kick touchline conversion. They travel to Brive tomorrow.

Already without Italian Sergio Parisse, injured in last week’s defeat to Ireland, they have also lost the French trio of Dimitri Szarzewski, Pascal Pape and 23rd man David Attoub.

However, after five seasons with Leinster and now in his second season at Stade Français, Cheika is better qualified to look ahead to Sunday’s game than most, given that he has also coached nine of Ireland’s squad. To his way of thinking, the postponement and intervening wins haven’t changed the dynamics of the match.

“Ireland need to climb into the breakdown and get that quick ball going,” he told The Irish Timesyesterday, “and make them panic in defence. If they do this through quick ball and a direct style of play with no fear of the consequences, they’ll have some success.

“They’re a good team, the French. They’ve got good players, they’re playing a pretty standardised type of rugby now, not conservative, but they’re mixing the best between occupying the field position and then hitting on the counter. So you need to keep the ball. You cannot give it to them too much. You gotta play a lot with it.

“If you’re going to give them the ball, you’ve got to give it to them from set piece. You cannot give it to them on reckless kicking or turnover, that’s where they can do some damage to you.”

The trust France have in their defence is augmented by the willingness of virtually all 15 players on the pitch to spring into collective life with an awareness of whenever they engineer a turnover at the breakdown or the opposition spill the pill. And if that comes off then, in turn, the band starts playing, the crowd start chanting allez Les Bleusand confidence oozes through every pore.

“What they do well is when they get momentum, like when it starts to happen for them, they really max it. When they get one good piece of play, they attach five or six minutes of that together, and they’re very hard to stop when they do that.”

Suddenly, right enough, it’s as if everyone in blue is offloading. “It’s like it’s contagious, and that’s something Ireland have to be wary of, to have a player who can identify when the French are starting to get on a roll and actually come up with a massive hit or do something that’s going to stop it in its tracks early. If you get a sniff they’re on a roll you’ve got to change your modus operandi to come out and shut it down straight away. That’s why they score points quickly, and score two or three tries in a short space of time.”

In Cheika’s view though, Ireland have plenty of players capable of doing this. “I would like to see them cut loose. I think they need to play with quicker ball and just let it flow. Like, their game is good, I just think they need to cut loose a little bit more and play on the front foot a lot more. And that’s almost cyclical.

“Once you start it, it’s hard to stop, especially as Ireland have some powerful runners, and can keep the game alive, with offloads and climbing into the rucks a bit more and commit fully to their running game. I just think they need to believe in their attacking game more and go after it.”

To this end, Cheika would like to see Eoin Reddan picked from the start, all the more so given his understanding with Jonathan Sexton. He likes Conor Murray as well, and compares it to the Leinster mix of Reddan and Isaac Boss.

“They’re very lucky, they’ve got two guys who can play different ways. I think the key to playing a more committed attacking game is to play with Reddan, because he just picks the pace of the game up and I reckon the game needs to be played fast from the start, not just at the end.”

After his five years with Leinster, Cheika would like to see Ireland do well and still believes – despite the likelihood of Wales going for a Grand Slam on the final Saturday at home to France – that Sunday’s game is between the best two sides in the Northern Hemisphere. And with “less expectation” on Ireland, this is also why he can’t call it.

“It’s going to be close,” he says, repeating himself as he pauses some more. “I don’t expect anyone to win to be honest. I don’t know who will win. If Ireland come with the right mentality it’s going to be a super match. If both those teams go hard and it’s one of those games, it’s going to be a cracker.”

And come down to one moment? “Yeh. It’s going to come down to one individual who’s prepared to make the difference, and that’s what happens when the good teams clash. It’s going to be real close.”