Bell drinks to the spirit of the Irish

Paul Trow speaks to a centre keen to be at the heart of a win in Paris
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The Independent Online
IT WAS pushing midday on the morning after Jonathan Bell's 22nd birthday celebrations and he felt a trifle run-down. "Well, I went out for a few drinks and got to bed a bit late, but I'll be OK," Ireland's talented young centre said after surfacing from his slumbers. His compatriots are hoping that he doesn't feel the same way after he has faced France in Paris on Saturday.

He may be a relative newcomer to the international scene, having made his debut in Australia less than two years ago, but already Bell embodies that indefatigable spirit of optimism in the face of adversity that continues to give Irish rugby its unique charm.

"After our defeat by Scotland last month, we have nothing to lose against France," he said. "They are a brilliant side, but their confidence took a knock last weekend at Murrayfield. Of course, we could catch them on the rebound - it's happened before, and we don't have a good record at Parc des Princes. On their day they're the best in the world, but on an off-day they can play terribly. We'll aim to undermine their confidence even further by trying to get on top from the start. We'll try to hassle them the way Scotland did."

Bell, who hails from Larne and was educated, academically and in rugby, at a boarding school in Coleraine, crossed the water to study sports science and management at Loughborough University 18 months ago. But he only left his Ulster club, Ballymena, to become a fully-fledged Courage player for Northampton, of League Two, at the start of this season.

For the record, Northampton have done rather well in the league since suffering the ignominy of relegation last April (11 wins out of 11 at the last count). Seven members of the present team are holding down international places (including four with England and two Scots), and Bell, who will win his 12th cap next weekend, is quick to pay tribute to the contribution made to those players' careers by the coach at the East Midlands club, Ian McGeechan, himself once a centre of no mean repute.

"He has a huge influence on the side," Bell said. "He knows his stuff and he has a marvellous rapport with the players. He is very approachable, almost one of the lads, but his every word is well respected. We've been playing an expansive game all season, but we know it would be harder for us to do so against First Division teams."

Bell's admiration for the former British Lions' coach does not preclude him from holding the present Ireland trainer, the New Zealander Murray Kidd, in similar esteem - despite the defeat that Scotland inflicted at Lansdowne Road.

"Under Murray we're very well prepared and we've never been fitter or had more self- belief in the squad. Against Scotland, though, we left it all in the changing-room. But we're a better side than that. Scotland played well while we played badly, particularly in the second half when, 16-10 down but with the wind at our backs, we made no impact on them at all. Hopefully, the weather in Paris will be better than it was in Dublin so we can move the ball a bit more fluently and play more of the running game."

Bell, who missed Ulster's impressive midweek victory over New South Wales because of a rib ligament injury, expects to be fit to face the French. The task he faces in Paris, along with Kidd's other charges, may be daunting, but it is one of international rugby's rites of passage. Just like a birthday party.