Rugby Union / Five Nations' Championship: French set to run down underdogs

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IRELAND, who lead the world in the art of straw-clutching, refer doubting O'Thomases to the Welsh victory over England. Nobody, they say, expected that result, just as nobody expects Ireland to beat France here at Lansdowne Road today.

The fact is England's defeat is more likely to inspire the French than Ireland. It has thrown the Four Nations' Championship - Ireland in the equation hardly count - wide open.

France, as unlucky against England as England were against Wales, must sense that they now have a glorious chance of winning the championship. After Ireland, they play Wales in Paris. After sorting out the political in-fighting, France, reformed under their new captain Jean-Francois Tordo, appear to be gaining ground. All they have to guard against is complacency.

For the first time, France did not train at all in Dublin. However, Pierre Berbizier, the coach, is making the right diplomatic noises. 'Despite Ireland's long sequence of defeats, we take nothing for granted,' he said. 'Ireland are always at their strongest when they create havoc in the other team.

'They're going through a difficult period, but in a one-off match they are capable of anything. The World Cup quarter-final proved they can trouble the world's best. If you don't keep the Irish completely under control anything can happen.'

This used to be true, but even the fire has dimmed and the brimstone has been eroded by the sophisticated development of all the other major rugby countries bar Ireland. Neither does Lansdowne Road put the fear of God into visiting sides. Ireland have not beaten France in Dublin since 1983 (they have not won in Paris since 1972).

Ireland managed to beat Wales in 1990, after which they have had one draw in nine Five Nations matches. 'I don't think we're as bad as people think,' Gerry Murphy, the coach, said.

When Murphy, a 47-year-old schoolmaster, took over from Ciaran Fitzgerald following a record defeat by Australia last autumn, he was left clutching the shortest straw. Rare in that he is not a former international, the quietly spoken Murphy is not of the fire and brimstone school.

'Boot, bollock and boot is not enough these days,' he admitted. Nevertheless, Murphy, who has been appointed for this season only, has a number of chiefs in his corner who know how to apply the warpaint. Their training sessions have been attended by Noel Murphy, the manager, and Willie Anderson, who supervised the forwards.

Gerry Murphy believes the Irish eight have been considerably strengthened by the introduction of Peter Clohessy and Terry Kingston, who will lead the pack, in the front row; Neil Francis in the second row, and Pat O'Hara and Michael Galwey in the back row. It is one of the bigger Irish packs, but there are screaming doubts about its fitness.

Ireland, for their last serious training session, had to switch grounds after discovering that the scrummage machine had been left at Lansdowne Road. In their 15-3 defeat by Scotland at Murrayfield, Ireland had nothing to offer in the line-out and precious little beyond that. Francis's input is expected to remedy the former.

'He's very forthright and extremely helpful,' Gerry Murphy said. 'And why not? He's a very experienced international. A good start for us will be essential. We simply have to make things happen. We failed to do that against Scotland and paid the penalty.

'We allowed them to dictate from the kick-off. We adopted a secondary role and that can't be allowed this time. We have devoted time to the speed at which we want to play the game. But the players handled those aspects amongst themselves.'

That was at the express wish of the captain, Michael Bradley, who led the team in training for the final half-hour. 'That, I suppose, points to the ideal coach,' Murphy observed. 'He should be redundant.'

There are those who suspect that, come the end of the season, he probably will be.

----------------------------------------------------------------- IRELAND V FRANCE ----------------------------------------------------------------- (at Lansdowne Road) C Clarke Terenure College 15 J-B Lafond Begles S Geoghegan London Irish 14 P Saint-Andre Montferrand V Cunningham St Mary's College 13 P Sella Agen P Danaher Garryowen 12 T Lacroix Dax R Wallace Garryowen 11 P Hontas Biarritz N Malone London Irish 10 D Camberabero Beziers M Bradley Constitution 9 A Hueber Toulon N Popplewell Greystones 1 L Armary Lourdes T Kingston Dolphin 2 J-F Tordo Nice, capt P Clohessy Young Munster 3 L Seigne Merignac P Johns Dungannon 4 A Benazzi Agen N Francis Blackrock College 5 O Roumat Dax P O'Hara Constitution 6 P Benetton Agen M Galwey Shannon 8 M Cecillon Bourgoin D McBride Malone 7 L Cabannes Racing Club Replacements: 16 B Glennon (Lansdowne), 17 E Elwood (Lansdowne), 18 R Saunders (London Irish), 19 S McKinty (Bangor), 20 P McCarthy (Constitution), 21 J Murphy (Greystones). Replacements: 16 S Ougier (Toulouse), 17 F Mesnel (Racing Club), 18 G Accoceberry (Tyrosse), 19 E Melville (Toulon), 20 S Graou (Auch), 21 F Landreau (Grenoble). Referee: D Leslie (Scotland). Kick-off: 2.45. -----------------------------------------------------------------