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The 02 Rugby Nerds Examine Ireland v France

The 02 Rugby Nerds Examine Ireland v France
By Donny Mahoney
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Is it really only 4 weeks since we were dreaming of a tilt at our third Grand Slam? Whilst more than a little previous it didn’t seem a completely daft notion after Ireland had produced one of their finest 40 minutes of rugby and survived a second-half onslaught to defeat the Taffs in their own backyard. Now we are staring down the barrel of a St Patrick’s weekend wooden spoon decider in the Eternal City. I approach this weekend far more in hope than expectation.

Following our disappointing loss to England, and dismal capitulation to the shockingly 1-dimensional Jockanese, the Circus that is Irish Rugby has lurched from one disaster to the next. To be fair to the coaching team, the injury crisis shows no sign of abating with Deccie Fitz (rhymes with ‘falling to bits’) and Craig Gilroy the latest casualties and Sexton, D’Arcy et al still crocked – at least Mike McCarthy is fit to resume in the second row.

On the other hand, I can think of no explanation for the fly-half debacle. Despite my enormous regard for ROG, it was the right decision to drop him from the squad, even if the timing was 16 months out. However, the manner of it was appalling. Not to mention his omission in the press release was hugely disrespectful of a true legend, and not to invite him to Carton House when one of your 3 fly-half picks is at best 50:50, was just plain dull. To then pitch up to the presser with no apparent preparation defied all comprehension and resulted in the widely reported omnishambles. Mind you, what do you expect when you hire your Director of Communications from Ryanair, a company that, more than any other, regards communications with their customers as an embuggerance? Deccie may be a lame duck but Stephen McNamara is the man who must, surely, fall on his sword.

Just to finish off on the fly-half theme, I was at Ravenhill on Friday to witness Jackson’s excellent performance, albeit in a disappointing draw, against a spirited Treviso. His handling was excellent, as was his tactical kicking game. Although his first attempt at goal was poorly struck, the remainder of his kicking from the tee was very good. Hopefully he will continue this form on Saturday and we won’t need to press McFadden into service.

Phillipe St Andre has named a very strong French side for their visit to Lansdowne Road. I don’t think many of our players would get into their side on current form: even the great one would struggle to displace Fritz or Fofana. Our front row will be bolstered by the return of the redeemed Cian Healy, but Mike Ross had a tough day against Domingo in the Aviva before Christmas. At the very least, he will get a thorough going over from the Clermont loosehead and is unlikely to last the full 80. When he tires, we will have to rely on Stephen Archer to withstand the pressures of Domingo and his Belgique clubmate, Vincent Debaty. It could be really messy and a day to put away the choke tackle. The selection of Archer ahead of Bent further highlights the disgraceful selection of the Taranaki tight-head in the Autumn. Never have caps been dished out with less care or merit.


Jamie Heaslip has come in for a lot of criticism of late. Whilst he has not been at his best, I feel that some of the critics have gone over the top. In my opinion he remains our best 8 and on Saturday evening, he will have an opportunity to prove it, and stake a claim to a seat on the Qantas A380, if he can match his opposite number. Picamoles is world class and, despite the French malaise, has been the outstanding forward in the Championship to date (yes, even better than Chris Robshaw Mr Jones!). His stats are extraordinary: he lies third behind Stuart Hogg and Mike Brown for distance carried with 212m in 41 carries and is also well up in the line break and off-load stats. (Hat tip to the Waisale Times )

Behind the pack, St Andre has selected a hugely exciting backline. Florian Fritz teams up with Wesley Fofana in what must be the most exciting centre partnership on the planet. BOD and Luke Marshall will certainly have their hands full but, if the young Ballymena man can look half as good against them as he did against the Scots, he will be well on the way to securing the 12 jersey on a permanent basis.

An area of real concern is the back three. For Les Bleus, Maxime Medard has been recalled in favour of Benjamin Fall, to join Yoann Huget and notre bête noir (© GT) Vincent Clerc in a back three which is full of counter-attacking intent. In comparison, our back-three does not look great. Bob is some way off his best form and I remain unconvinced that Earls has what it takes for International rugby. I would start with Fitzgerald although Trimble, who has been consistently excellent for Ulster (check out his try against Treviso) would not be far behind. McFadden is a fine player, but I don’t think for a second that he would be starting if Jonny were fit.


Amid the gloom, there are 3 small straws at which to clutch. First, the French travel to Dublin on the back of 3 successive defeats. I can’t imagine that this has happened in the last 50 years, if ever. They were abject in Rome and ran out of puff against Wales, who managed to be only slightly less bad than them on the day. Against England they looked somewhere approaching par for the first half before St Andre lost the plot and introduced Michalak and Machenaud vice the excellent Parra and Trinh Duc.

Which leads me to the second straw of hope, which is that St Andre, clearly not watching as Michalak gifted the game to England, has selected the erratic Toulon scrum-half to start at 10. Regrettably, St Andre’s eccentricity does not seem to extend to his selections elsewhere.

Finally, and more in desperation that with any real conviction, many of the French team had to endure the rigours of the Top Quatorze last weekend so we might just be able to catch them cold or beat them for stamina.


If Ireland play to their potential they could just beat what is, on paper, a very fine team. As an Ulsterman, it would be fantastic to see Jackson, Marshall and Henderson enhance their international reputations and I am looking forward to seeing Madigan’s debut – let’s hope he gets at least 20 minutes. However, for the reasons outlined above, I fear that Ireland will lose on Saturday, possibly by as many as 10-15 points. But I have been badly wrong on more than one occasion so far in this tournament. Hopefully, come Saturday night, my reputation as a rugby tipster will be totally destroyed.

---Paddy Logan

Ireland host France on Saturday at 5pm knowing the French have lost three consecutive games. It's something that doesn't happen often and France will be furiously trying to end their own streak while extending Ireland's losing run.


Losing three Six Nations games on the bounce is something that France have never done in the Six Nations era (2000-present). In all matches, however, they went through a similar run just last year when losing
games to England (22-24), Wales (9-16) and Argentina (20-23); they then went out and thrashed the Pumas 49-10 to end the streak.

The French lost three games in a row in 2008 and 2003 after doing so not once but twice in 1999. The pre-millennium year was the final year of the Five Nations championship and France went out with a whimper,
losing to Wales, England and eventual champions Scotland on the final day. Later the same year they'd lose to Tonga, New Zealand and Wales. Not a good vintage, 1999. But it had probably been due; one has to
look back all the way to 1990 to find the next three match losing streak by a French side.


The last time France lost four games in a row? 1989. The victors: New Zealand (x2), a Lions XV and Australia. The time before that? A five match losing run between the 1981 and 1982 seasons that they stopped
with a win against Ireland in Parc des Princes.


In the search for further French wreckage we skip past a four match losing run in 1974-75 before shuddering to a halt to gaze in wonder at a losing streak between 1968 and 1969 that was of almost majestic

Beginning in July 1968 the French had ten losses on the bounce followed by a draw against Wales in Colombes. True, the losses included three games in New Zealand but they also included a game against Romania. Amazingly (and, if one is to invoke just a tiny guilty sliver of national stereotyping, so wonderfully French) the team that went on that streak had won a Five Nations Grand Slam just months before.

Ireland have had three losing streaks of ten games in their rugby history. The first two both came in the late 19th century, the very earliest years of international rugby. The third is far more recent,
coming between October 1991 and spring of 1993. The early 90s were dark days for the Irish game, intermittently brightened by the blonde whirling dervish that was Simon Geoghegan on the right wing.


New Zealand's last losing streak of more than two games occurred in the 1998 Tri Nations when they lost five in a row, just one off their all-time record losing streak of six in 1949. Only one other time since 1903 have New Zealand teams lost more than three games in a row, that coming back in 1929/30 when they had a four game losing run.

France's longest ever losing streak? 18 games between 1911 and 1920, interrupted by the First World War. The French losing that many games in a row wasn't unusual for the time; in France's first 31 international games, which includes that 18 game run, they won precisely one. They ended that 1-31 streak with a 15-7 win over Ireland at Lansdowne Road on April 3rd, 1920.

On Saturday Freddie Michalak will run out at the new Lansdowne Road trying to break a current French losing streak while extending one of his own. The mercurial halfback has won all six matches he's played
against Ireland.

Whatever happens on Sunday, one of those two streaks is ending.

---Andy McGeady

It's hard to think of a more tumultuous Six Nations campaign, either in memory or indeed in the imagination of the most wicked of despots. A raft of injuries to key players, a cohort of pundits questioning the appointment of a new captain, lingering doubts over the man he replaced and open uncertainty over the future of the team's coach. There's really not much else that can go wrong.

In spite of that though, Ireland haven't actually played badly. One win from three is not good enough, don't get me wrong, but we have been annoyingly close to being in contention. That win over Wales seems a distant memory, but for the first fifty minutes Ireland were scintillating. Since then, we've tasted two defeats, but one was by six points on a wet, wintry day which made the afternoon a crapshoot, and the other was the closest thing rugby will ever produce to the soccer team's 0-0 draw in Liechtenstein in 1995. There's a negative atmosphere around this time, but the margin between reality and our shared Grand Slam dream is finite, as the last few weeks have shown. Sin é sport, as some may say during Seachtain na Gaeilge.

Another snafu I omitted from my opening salvo is the one that has dominated discussion for much of this week. Ronan O'Gara's leadership and experience would be beneficial for this young team, but his skills in recent weeks have not been of international standard. The right decision at the wrong time, proclaimed this website, and correctly so. ROG's best days are behind him, and for those that are left he should apply a Giggs-esque approach and focus on the team where he already is, and always will be, a legend. Drafting Ian Madigan onto the bench supplies to Declan Kidney a substitute more akin to Paddy Jackson, who (as he showed for Ulster last week) is not a 1 for 6 kicker generally. Edinburgh, we hope, will just be a blip in a promising career, and remember his performance with ball in hand was more than acceptable.
Ireland's running game, evident in spurts this year, will be matched tomorrow with France's backs providing an altogether different challenge. From 11 to 15, France are around six pounds per man lighter than their English counterparts and the guts of a stone per man lighter than the Scots (I work in old money). This is good for an Irish back-line whose defence has been weakened with injury, and hopefully will help lead to a direct approach.

The last aspect of this nightmare campaign that I've yet to discuss is one that I feel is likely to change tomorrow. The apathy from the fan, particularly those in attendance, is palpable and while it shouldn't effect what happens on the field, anyone who has been in Thomond, Ravenhill, the RDS or the Sportsground on a raucous night will know that it does. Turning Alan Quinlan into Uncle Sam imploring fans to do their bit was a marketing stroke by the IRFU - if followed up by similar measures in and around Lansdowne Road, and a stirring performance on the pitch, then the Aviva could become the fortress we need it to be. If that occurs - and I'm optimistic that a stung rugby public will want to prove their worth - then I'm hopeful we can keep the French winless in this Six Nations, and that the pressure of this nightmare will ease somewhat at last.

---Gavin Grace

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