5 reasons to be cheerful, and 5 to be fearful, ahead of France clash
Johnny Sexton is a big part of why Ireland fans should be cheerful today
Roy Curtis breaks down the Rugby World Cup Pool decider with five reasons to be optimistic, and five reasons to be worried ahead of the game.
FIVE REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL
The Schmidt factor
Two European Cups with Leinster, two Six Nations with Ireland, Joe Schmidt’s stratospheric reputation is a comfort blanket wrapping the nation in warmth. If it has become almost a cliché to describe the New Zealander as the world’s most accomplished and coveted coach, it is a legend built on impeccable foundations. There is an abundance of belief that Schmidt has carefully concealed his blueprint for glory which, with perfect timing, he will unveil today.
France’s recent record v Ireland
The French have endured a mini-famine against opponents they once devoured. Ireland are unbeaten in four meetings – two wins, two draws – since the last World Cup. In only one of that quartet of fixtures did the French score more than a solitary try. Admittedly, a total of just nine points separated the teams over those four contests, but the psychological impact of avoiding any lasting Gallic wounds should not be underestimated. Whatever other baggage Schmidt’s players carry onto the Millennium Stadium this afternoon, an inferiority complex will not be among them.
Jonathan Sexton spent two years as a highly-rewarded gun for hire in Paris; yet it clearly nags at this hugely ambitious and driven playmaker that France did not see him in full-bloom. An injury-truncated second season at Racing Metro badly tarnished his Gallic legacy; media coverage was occasionally ferocious. Sexton is consumed with a passion for reminding those who doubt him how good he can be (remember that famous picture of the youthful out-half, standing over a prone Ronan O’Gara trash-talking); the suspicion is that he will download his A-game for a career-defining afternoon.
Ireland’s scrum and line-out have become formidable weapons, the former unbending, the latter (particularly on the opposition throw) a profitable source of attacking possession, an area to be mined for tries. The return of Healy adds even more explosive power to the push-and-shove contest; Devin Toner’s 6’10” frame is a landmark magnet for Rory Best’s darts.
The national feel-good factor
Shane Long’s goal has had a cathartic, inspiring effect on the nation; a boundless sense of can-do optimism is all about the place. The rugby team were fed an upbeat diet of glorious tales by Henry Shefflin, Niall Quinn, Sonia O’Sullivan, AP McCoy and Barry McGuigan, all of whom visited the team’s Guildford base this week. The huge Irish crowd, buoyant after events at the Aviva, arrive in Cardiff coated with a bullet-proof belief in destiny.
FIVE REASONS TO BE FEARFUL
Iain Henderson (below, against Italy) has been a force of nature, a human stimulus package, a hatching world star at this fiesta; to decommission him for Ireland’s most momentous fixture in four years is a somewhat strange and dislocating call by Joe Schmidt. This is something other than the nation’s most formidable XV.
Lack of tries
Faced with A-list opponents, Ireland’s cutting edge turns disquietingly blunt. Six Nations games against France, Wales and England yielded just a solitary Robbie Henshaw touchdown (there was also a penalty try). Even against the anaemic Italians last week only the now deposed Earls achieved a five-pointer. Ireland’s reliance on kick-and-chase, the lack of an offload game, the over emphasis on Conor Murray (right) and his boot, gives the team a one-dimensional feel. The assumption is that Schmidt has a carefully guarded masterplan. If so, it needs immediate unveiling.
Form of key players
Sean O’Brien has thus far been a silhouette of the storied ground-devouring carnivore; beside him the detonations from Jamie Heaslip have been sporadic and low-key; Jonathan Sexton has yet to make a contest his own as Australia’s Bernard Foley did a week ago; Murray’s box-kicking addiction can be counter-productive. Cian Healy is taking the first tentative steps back from a long convalescence. To prosper, Ireland requires this special quintet to reach out and locate their undoubted greatness.
France’s World Cup pedigree
Those of us who had ringside seats in Durban 20 years ago or Melbourne eight years later need no reminding of the concussive impact of a speeding Gallic juggernaut. France disembowelled Ireland in those two quarter-final meetings, the aggregate margin of slaughter was a a mortifying 46 points. Les Bleus thrive at the Rugby World Cup. From seven previous starts, they have reached three finals and three semi-finals; their least celebrated appearance – quarter-final defeat in 1991 – equals Ireland’s all-time high water mark.
Ireland have become the schoolboy who spends every second day in detention. The Italian match was the seventh of the last ten where Ireland conceded a double-figure penalty tally. With the accuracy of modern day kickers, that amounts to hara-kiri. Sinbinnings are an additional issue. Against a team with the brute physicality of France, any time spent a man light leaves Schmidt’s side running into a powerful and forbidding headwind.