An angry team written off is dangerous but I still expect Ireland to beat France

Even in the professional era, the simplest motivation in sport is when no one believes in you

John O'Sullivan discusses three key battles for the upcoming Six Nations showdown with France on Saturday.


In the France squad this week, there’ll be a lot of anger and a lot of frustration. Even though they have three wins and six points on the board, they’ve been terrible in this Six Nations. They’ll be cranky with each other, annoyed with their coach, full of contempt for the press. On the face of it, they have all the ingredients for an ambush.

You would think that in modern professional sport the old motivating factor of everybody writing you off wouldn’t carry much weight. Don’t believe a bit of it. Teams and players still use it at every level of every major sport.

Nothing fires you up like the thought that nobody thinks you have it in you. It makes you bitter, it gives you a chip on the shoulder. If you use it the right way, you can turn things around.

Motivating power
Don’t underestimate
the motivating power of everybody saying you’re crap. It’s only Wednesday but how many times since the weekend have you heard somebody say this is a dire French team?

And if that’s what we’re saying in Ireland, you can only imagine what the atmosphere is like in France. Everywhere they turn, people are giving out about them. I don’t care how professional you are or how detached you try to be – you carry that with you out onto the pitch.

This is a bit different to what we would have had with Munster at the start. Back then, we would find something to get bitter about, dig out something the opposition had said in the press and use it as motivation. We would make out that they thought we were inferior to them and we’d go out to prove them wrong.

The difference there is we actually probably were that little bit inferior at the time. Definitely starting off, when we were travelling to the south of France, we were playing teams that had better players, who were better paid, who had no experience of losing to Irish teams. In that situation, we were probably trying to convince ourselves we weren’t inferior as much as anything and gradually it came to be the case that we weren’t.

What France are going through this week isn’t like that. The team we’ve seen in the Six Nations so far is, as everyone has been saying, terrible. But these aren’t terrible players. They might not be just at the level of some of the best ones of the past but they’re not useless. There is plenty of talent in that squad – they’re just underperforming.

That’s what makes them potentially dangerous this weekend. Write off bad players and every once in a while they’ll play above themselves and catch you out. Write off decent players and there’s a far bigger chance they’ll rouse themselves into a performance.

It happens in all sports but it can work especially well in rugby. You can have all the clever gameplans and set moves in the world but when you break it down, rugby is fundamentally a game of aggression. Especially in the early stages of a game when both sides are trying to dominate.

Stewed away
If you’ve spent the week annoyed at yourself, if you’ve stewed away in all the bad press and public anger, then those early clashes are a great way to change the mood. You go out on to the pitch and even if you haven’t managed to solve all the technical problems during the week, at least you can make it chaotic for the other side. At least you can put in a heavy tackle that gets the crowd going and makes your teammates realise you mean business.

It won’t be enough to win you the game. Once upon a time, maybe it would have been. But in the professional era, good teams are more in tune when it comes to weathering that sort of storm. Good teams don’t panic. They do the simple things right and they don’t let the game get too frenzied.

But what that anger and aggression can do is it can start to fix some of the things that were wrong that were making you play so badly as a team.

Every squad is made up of different personalities and when things are going badly, little resentments will always flare up. When you hear that there’s unrest in the camp, that’s usually what it is.

Guys who might not have spoken up before about something that’s annoying them about another player or one of the coaches suddenly become vocal. The leaders in the squad start go around and challenge guys across the room. Everything that has gone wrong gets fed into what’s said.

‘You’re playing crap, we’re playing crap, I’m playing crap – we can do so much better than this. Why aren’t we doing it? Why aren’t we showing more heart? Why isn’t our work-rate high enough? Who will work harder? Are we prepared to just let this thing slide away from us?’

Everybody will know you’re in a bad place but because you have a game on the weekend, you will find a way to bring something together for when you walk out onto the pitch. But you can’t be sure everyone believes in it until the game starts. It’s in those early exchanges that the little resentments can melt away. All it takes is a few big tackles, a set move that comes off and you can turn the mood around. And if good players start playing as a team, anything is possible.

From the outside looking in, the situation seems too far gone with France. Philippe Saint-André is a good guy but he seems to have alienated a lot of the senior French players. There’s no obvious structure to their play and the players often look like they don’t know where they’re supposed to be or what they’re supposed to do. I can’t remember the last time I saw a French team with so few leaders.

They look like they’re not really sure what way they want to play. When you stop them at source, they look quite pedestrian and lazy. Scotland should have beaten them, England certainly should have and you can make an argument that they’ve been the worst team to watch in the Six Nations. Yet they’re on the same points total as we are.

This is the danger with France. If Ireland had played as badly as they have, we wouldn’t be on six points. But purely because they have enough quality available to them, they found a way to win against Scotland and England. And this weekend, they’re not going to be thinking Ireland are this amazing force coming to give them a beating. They’re going to see a team coming over that has won one game in Paris in 42 years.

That’s only going to add to their anger. Yes, deep down there are question marks and real problems that need sorting out. But imagine you were in the French squad this week. You play for a big Top 14 club, you play for France, you’ve made it to the top of your chosen career – and yet all of a sudden people are saying you’re no good and that you’re going to lose to Ireland? Ireland, who never win in Paris? You’d be raging.

They will still believe they can and should and will beat Ireland. That will be their mentality, no doubt about it.

Personally, I will be surprised if they produce a performance but the least I would expect is an aggressive reaction.

The question for Ireland is how to deal with that. The fact we have such a bad record in Paris is probably a blessing in this regard because there is no chance whatsoever of Ireland thinking they just have to turn up. Most of these guys will never have gone to the Stade de France with such confidence behind them but I can’t see them assuming the France they’ve seen in the championship so far is the France they will face on Saturday night.

Structure, honesty, work-rate
There will be fire and brimstone but what I expect from Ireland is structure, honesty and work-rate to keep it under wraps. The way to beat a team that is coming at you in a rage is to build the phases, be patient, try not to get dragged into a war.

Keep moving them around, keep making them tackle us. Turn their anger at the way people have written them off into anger at themselves over how poor they’ve been.

This is a great chance for Ireland, the best we’ve had in Paris for a long time. Even in 2000 when we won over there, people weren’t going over with the sort of optimism Ireland are travelling with this week.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that some of these French players are going to be playing for their international careers on Saturday but they’re meeting an Ireland side that is growing mentally under Joe Schmidt.

Ireland know what to expect. A physical start. Huge aggression. A crowd that will turn on the home side eventually if Ireland can contain them.

As long as Ireland react to the reaction, I think they should be okay. They’re in better form, their set-pieces are in better shape, they’re far more in tune with the way their coach is trying to get them to play.

A team that has been written off is dangerous. But nothing is more dangerous than a well-coached team that’s in good form and that only needs a win to take a championship.

Ireland to win.

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