Rugby -Five Nations Championship: Ireland brace themselves to withstand French barrage

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WARREN GATLAND has taken exception with those who have chosen to describe Ireland's first visit to the Stade de France this afternoon as futile. It certainly promises to be a far from pointless exercise. That is the problem facing Ireland's new coach.

Having put 51 points on the Murrayfield board two weeks ago, France will be looking to complete the seventh and penultimate leg of their back-to- back Grand Slam bid with another barrage of points, this time at the expense of an Irish team embarking on what only time will determine as a new era or just another error.

Never before has a team started hotter favourites for a Five Nations' match. At 33-1 on, France have already set one record. By the time the stadium's electronic scoreboard gets to rest at the end of the afternoon (presuming, that is, it has not blown a fuse from overwork), the French cockerel may well be crowing about another landmark achievement.

The 60 points England scored against Wales the afternoon France set about the Scots, a Five Nations' record, is certain to be in the forefront of Gallic minds come kick-off. Not that anyone in the home camp will admit as much.

The hardest task for France this week has been playing down their own expectations and playing up the Irish as participants in something other than a Paris mismatch. Jo Maso has spent more time on the back foot, metaphorically at least, than he ever did as an attacking centre for France.

"We can't take anything for granted," the French manager said. "Any nation is capable of surprising another. Ireland will be fired up by a new coach. We expect them to throw everything at us for the first half-hour."

The trouble is Ireland have precious little to throw. As the former Irish stand-off Tony Ward lamented last week: "Irish rugby has never been more poorly endowed. We have never been so bereft of talent."

Gatland, a former New Zealand hooker installed as Brian Ashton's successor 11 days ago, has had to dip into the Third Division of the All-Ireland League to come up with a third man for the back row he has completely revamped.

Like Gatland himself, though, Andy Ward happens to be another Kiwi in Celt's clothing. He will need to show the pedigree of a New Zealander this afternoon.

And if Ireland are not to be buried without trace, Eric Elwood will need to play like the half-back "general" and points-kicking machine Gatland portrayed when announcing the return of the Galwegian to No 10. Elwood may be limited as an offensive outside-half, but he can batten down the hatches and play the percentage game.

"Of course we're rank outsiders," Gatland said. "Ireland's record in Paris is depressing, but I'm trying to eliminate all negative thoughts from the squad. Words like futile have been used about our visit, but if we can be disciplined, creative and get a work ethic going we can come away with something far higher than the public expects."

Even the most hopeful green-tinted scenario would still fall some way short of bridging the gap since Ireland last won in Paris. That was in 1972 in the Stade Colombes against a team which included Jean-Claude Skrela and Pierre Villepreux of Toulouse, twin masterminds of the brilliant French class of 1997-98.

Ireland have yet to concede a half-century in a Five Nations match. If today proves not to be the day, Gatland will have completed a satisfactory exercise in what has become an essential art for the coach of a Celtic nation - damage limitation.


at Stade de France

J-L Sadourny Colomiers 15 C O'Shea London Irish

P Bernat-Salles Pau 14 R Wallace Saracens

C Lamaison Brive 13 K Maggs Bristol

S Glas Bourgoin 12 R Henderson Wasps

X Garbajosa Toulouse 11 D Hickie St Mary's College

T Castaignede Castres 10 E Elwood Galwegians

P Carbonneau Brive 9 C McGuinness St Mary's Coll

C Califano Toulouse 1 R Corrigan Greystones

R Ibanez Dax, capt 2 K Wood Harlequins, capt

F Tournaire Toulouse 3 P Wallace Saracens

O Brouzet Begles-Bordeaux 4 P Johns Saracens

A Pelous Toulouse 5 M O'Kelly London Irish

M Lievremont Stade Francais 6 D Corkery Bristol

O Magne Brive 7 A Ward Ballynahinch

T Lievremont Perpignan 8 V Costello St Mary's College

Referee: J Fleming (Scotland) Kick-off: 2.0 (BBC1)

Five Nations' Championship

P W D L F A Pts

France 2 2 0 0 75 33 4

England 2 1 0 1 77 50 2

Scotland 2 1 0 1 33 67 2

Ireland 1 0 0 1 16 17 0

Wales 1 0 0 1 26 60 0

Remaining fixtures: 21 March Ireland v Wales (Lansdowne Rd). 22 March Scotland v England (Murrayfield). 4 April England v Ireland (Twickenham). 5 April Wales v France (Wembley).