So here we are on the eve of our pivotal pool match. Lord knows I want to be positive, but in the light of recent Irish performances, I am having grave difficulty attaining such a zen-like state.
Even though at the outset of this tournament I said that Ireland had the will and the means to beat France, having seen four abject displays on the trot, I am forced to reappraise that analysis. I dismissed the loss to Scotland and the ill-deserved win over Italy as cagey performances by a group of players who were wary of injuring themselves before the big event. (This happened to Geordan Murphy in 2003, when he broke his leg in a warm-up match against Scotland and missed the tournament. This time around he played a blinder against Scotland, but once again it looks like he will play little or no part in Ireland’s campaign. I’d reckon this must be worse for him.)
We will lose tomorrow night. Not only will we lose, but we will probably cough up a bonus point as well. Here’s why.
Ireland have beaten France just once under Eddie O’Sullivan. It was a drab, dreary affair in March 2003, 15-12 at Lansdowne Road. I stood on the South Terrace in the rain that day, and I was glad when it was over. Francois Gelez and David Humphries traded four penalties each, and Geordan Murphy’s early drop goal was the score that separated the sides at full time. Going into the match, France had already been beaten by England, and so it was clear that their interest in the Six Nations from then on was not as sharp as usual, as they had one foot on the plane to Australia for the World Cup.
One of the great failures of Eddie O’Sullivan’s tenure as Irish coach is his not being able to break France’s hoodoo over Ireland. His record v France is as follows: P 6 W1 D0 L5 PF106 PA197. The last time we beat France in Paris was in 2000. Before that it was 1972, before any of the current squad were even born.
For France, this is a must-win game. A loss tomorrow night would end their interest in their own World Cup tournament. For Ireland, it’s a “well it would be great to win, but it’s not a disaster if we don’t” game. We could lose tomorrow night and there is still a mathematical possibility of us reaching the quarter-finals. It would entail a big win over Argentina, a result that cannot be taken as read.
But the main reason for Ireland’s loss tomorrow is simply the fact that we have showed nothing in the previous matches to suggest that we can win. All key areas of the game are causes for alarm. The line-out has been misfiring, but hopefully the reinstatement of Jerry Flannery as hooker might go someway to rectifying this. We haven’t been anything like fast enough to the breakdown, which has allowed the opposition to slow down our ball. Our maul is MIA. The scrum has been OK so far, but will be put to a severe test against the beefy French front row. Our half-backs have been far less effective than usual. We have an international rookie at scrum-half (albeit a good one), and hopefully the occasion won’t give him the yips. Ronan O’Gara is out of sorts and he has had the added distraction of malicious rumours about his private life to deal with this week. The backs have had serious problems with basic skills such as dropping balls, missing passes and the like.
The eternal optimist in me would like to think that all of these problems will just melt away come 21h Paris time tomorrow. Maybe, just maybe, our crap performances to date have all been part of a cunning plan to fool the opposition. But in this case, the head must over-rule the heart, and I will predict a win for France of the order of 33-18. How did I arrive at that, you may ask. It’s the average number of of points scored by the two teams in all matches played against each other during the reign of Eddie O’Sullivan.
However, like the eve of the last time Ireland played against France in Paris, I would dearly love to be wrong.