Rugby Union: Ireland stoke fires of self-belief

Five Nations' Championship: Lansdowne Road prepares for France side in search of third successive Grand Slam
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The Independent Online
SWAMPED BY their own past and saturated in memory, the Irish love nothing better than a historical date or two to stoke the fires of debate. Here, then, are some dates they might like to consider as they stroll, hale and hearty and full of confidence, towards Lansdowne Road this afternoon.

Ireland's 15 good men and true last won a Grand Slam in 1948 and claimed their most recent Five Nations title and Triple Crown a small matter of 14 years ago. They have not beaten the French since 1983, have not avoided defeat by them since 1985 and have lost their last 10 opening Championship matches. Reasons to be cheerful? On second thoughts, forget the rugby and crack on with the drinking.

If there is an unmistakable crackle of optimism in Dublin this weekend, it has no obvious basis in fact or logic. As Donal Lenihan, who packed down alongside Moss Keane and Willie Duggan and Fergus Slattery on that famous afternoon in '83, said yesterday: "People seem to forget that France are going for their third successive Slam. That, in itself, will make them desperately hard to beat." As a player, Donal would have been thumping the tub with the best of them. Now, as team manager, it was in his interests to rein in the wilder expectations rather than excite them.

Ulster's tearfully romantic European Cup victory last weekend certainly raised Irish spirits in advance of this last Five Nations jamboree, but their successful strangulation of a less than complete and wholly off- colour Colomiers side was not really so much to write home about. Similar tactics this afternoon - welly it up in the air, run like the clappers and belt the first Frenchman who goes within a country kilometre of the descending ball - might rally the 49,000 crowd for 20 minutes or so, but would ultimately condemn Paddy Johns' side to a 14th consecutive defeat at the hands of the urbane Tricolores.

Mick Doyle, that garrulous man of Blackrock (not to mention University College Dublin and Cambridge) could be heard yesterday extolling the virtues of the Irish tight five, in which Johns himself acts as the meanest and most ruthless of enforcers. "You simply can't fault our forwards," insisted Doyle. "In the last five years, they competed equally and magnificently with every pack in the world."

Very true. They will do so today, too; Keith Wood and Paul Wallace are world-class operators, as is Jeremy Davidson. It may well be that they will give the French a serious going- over in the darkened recesses, especially as Christian Califano and Fabien Pelous are short of match hardness and Franck Tournaire is still liable to blow a gasket at the first sight of a clenched fist. But the Irish will require more than an edge at scrum and line-out to break the habit of an entire generation and take their Grand Slam ambitions into a second international weekend.

They will need to command the tackle area and they will need to kick their goals. Sadly, they may do neither. Andy Ward's knee injury deprives them of their warrior king, their Slattery-style, bust-a-gut breakaway flanker whose ball-winning ability was so much in evidence for Ulster last weekend. Dion O'Cuinneaguin is quick and capable, but he will struggle to ruffle Olivier Magne's pristine feathers to quite the same degree.

As for the kicking, Ireland will have only themselves to blame if David Humphreys' occasion marksmanship lets them down. They should, quite clearly, have picked the ultra-dependable Niall Woods for the senior side rather than the A team; not only would he have popped over the three-pointers in his sleep, but he would have joined Conor O'Shea and Justin Bishop in bringing London Irish's exhilarating three-pronged attacking partnership to bear on a French side unfamiliar with the sight of emerald-shirted three-quarters running with the ball rather than shoeing the leather off it.

The likelihood must be that Magne, Philippe Benetton and the calmly creative Thomas Lievremont will govern the loose exchanges and allow Philippe Carbonneau and Thomas Castaignede to organise things to the French benefit. Castaignede, the cheeky chappie from Castres whose youthful grin manages to make Arwel Thomas look like Old Father Time, had been conspicuous by his absence since he contributed 14 points and a mountain of instinctive swagger to his country's Test victory over Fiji in Suva last June. Last weekend the stand-off, fully recovered from his shoulder surgery, swanned back into the reckoning by giving Italy an equal amount of grief in Genoa. It does not seem fair, somehow.

When Doyle coached Ireland to the title 14 years ago - their 15-15 draw with France denied them a Slam - his players chipped in pounds 25 apiece to buy in some advice from a professional nutritionist. Today, they have psychologists, physiotherapists and personal masseuses, as well as dieticians. Will the army of support staff help them go one better than in '85? Probably not.

IRELAND v FRANCE

at Lansdowne Road

C O'Shea London Irish 15 E Ntamack Toulouse

J Bishop London Irish 14 P Bernat-Salles Biarritz

J Bell Dungannon 13 R Dourthe Stade Francais

K Maggs Bath 12 F Comba Stade Francais

G Dempsey Terenure 11 T Lombard Stade Francais

D Humphreys Dungannon 10 T Castaignede Castres

C McGuinness St Mary's Col 9 P Carbonneau Brive

P Clohessy Young Munster 1 C Califano Toulouse

K Wood Harlequins 2 R Ibanez Perpignan, capt

P Wallace Saracens 3 F Tournaire Toulouse

P Johns Saracens, capt 4 O Brouzet Begles-Bordeaux

J Davidson Castres 5 F Pelous Toulouse

E Miller Terenure 6 P Benetton Agen

D Cuinneaguin Sale 7 O Magne Brive

V Costello St Mary's Col 8 T Lievremont Perpignan

Referee: P Marshall (Australia) Kick-off: 2.15 (BBC1)

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