The Sunday Leader

Can Ireland Re-light The Paris Fire?

Wing Vincent Clerc, who scored a first-half hat-trick of tries in the 2008 fixture, is back in the France starting line-up

With all due respect to fans of Wales, Scotland, Italy and England, there is no doubt about the big game in the Six Nations this weekend.
France v Ireland shapes up as one of the, if not the, pivotal fixture in deciding who will go on to win this year’s title.

This year’s champions will be whoever emerges victorious on Saturday in the Stade de France. Despite a relatively narrow nine-point winning margin in Edinburgh, the French delivered a dominant performance of impressive power and control at Murrayfield.
They also gave every impression of having their heads screwed on right, which is not always the case on their travels.

If Ireland’s laborious win over Italy hardly suggested a team at the height of their powers. They might live to regret not pushing on and scoring more tries if the title comes down to points difference on the final day, but that sort of ruthless efficiency to put a team to the sword does not come easily in the first game of a championship.
Having got that opener out of their system, there will be no lack of Irish motivation or concentration for Saturday’s little set-to.

In many ways this will be a truer test of their new status as European flag-bearers than anything they faced en route to the Grand Slam, or in the autumn against the southern hemisphere super-powers in Dublin.

Victory in Paris, where they have won precisely once in the last 38 years, would not only make them favourites to retain their Six Nations crown but prove they can win in the toughest arenas when the stakes are at their highest.

That said, the fixture hasn’t been a pleasant experience for the visitors since 19 March 2000, the day a 21-year-old Brian O’Driscoll memorably announced himself to the wider sporting world with a stunning hat-trick of tries.
“If O’Driscoll hadn’t scored on that day, his performance was still the best I had ever seen,” recalled former Ireland captain Keith Wood, who led the side that day. “His presence offered hope for the rest of the team.”

If that ‘where there’s BOD, there’s hope’ sentiment still rings true, even the great man has not been able to conjur up another Parisian party for the green hordes since.
Ireland have conceded 19 tries and an average of 37 points on their last four
Six Nations visits, including a 44-5 shellacking in 2002.

But Wood reckons there is a formula to beating the French. “You just need to have the confidence to stay in the game. If you are in the game at half-time, you have a very good chance,” he reasons.

Easier said than done. In those four games since 2000, Ireland have trailed 28-5, 11-3, 29-3 and 19-6 at the interval. Then again, they were losing 19-7 midway through the second half in 2000 before O’Driscoll inspired one of the great Six Nations results.
So how do the Irish go about changing recent historical precedent?

Do they try to keep things tight and trust in Ronan O’Gara’s right peg to kick them into the right areas, frustrating the French with a territorial game?

Or do they put more width on their game in the hope of running the hosts ragged, as they did in a crazy comeback from 43-3 down in 2006, when O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy ran riot, the Irish scored four converted tries and France were out on their feet by the end, despite winning the game 43-31?

The inclusion of O’Gara, who hasn’t always had the happiest of times in Paris, ahead of the fit-again Johnny Sexton may suggest an inclination towards the first option.
But France’s scrum – if the evidence of Murrayfield is anything to go by – is a potent weapon and Irish props Cian Healy and John Hayes may struggle to maintain a stable platform at the set-piece for scrum-half Tomas O’Leary and O’Gara to work off.

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