A vote for the grey-haired brigade at the Stade de France this afternoon cocks a snook at the notion that the Six Nations is merely a preliminary practice session for next year's World Cup. The Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan and his French counterpart, Bernard Laporte, are hopeful that a nod to past glories will fortify them in the present.
Laporte is under the greater pressure after France opened the Championship with a 20-16 defeat to Scotland. Five players were dropped on Thursday. In came, among others, Olivier Magne, who has spent the season to date running around with a shamrock on his chest for London Irish in the short periods when he has not been incapacitated with a foot injury.
Magne and the similarly recalled Wasps hooker Raphaël Ibañez, at 32 and 33 years of age respectively, had not quite breathed their last in Test terms, but the impression that France possessed a settled squad to take them through to the World Cup was rudely dispelled. The loosehead prop Olivier Milloud, the centre David Marty and the winger Aurélien Rougerie were the others called up.
"Last Sunday at Murrayfield there were guys walking rather than running when we were without the ball," Laporte said. "We did not show the necessary fighting spirit in certain positions."
O'Sullivan was, shall we say, relieved to emerge from a tough opener against Italy in Dublin with a 26-16 victory. His squad have had an extra day to recover and the solitary change in personnel was forced upon them. The loose-head prop Reggie Corrigan replaces the sick Marcus Horan. At 35, Corrigan makes Magne and Ibañez look positively baby faced.
"It was pretty straightforward really," O'Sullivan said. "Simon Best stays on the bench because he covers both sides of the front row, and we wanted Reggie's experience."
His captain, Brian O'Driscoll, said: "Some people say we are due a good performance but you cannot just appear at the Stade de France and expect to play well.
"There's only so much Eddie and the coaches can do. You're drilled in a certain way but you have to stick your hand up and take a lot of the responsibility as a player. You've got to go out and make it happen."
With that in mind, and the question of a steadying hand on the tiller prominent, Ireland's best hopes lie in improving their accuracy of passing to make the most of O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy and Geordan Murphy through the midfield. Additionally, with so many scoring plays originating at the line-out, it is time for Munster's Paul O'Connell to prove he is a leader beyond his still tender years.
PG Wodehouse wrote that there is only one cure for grey hair, and it was invented by a Frenchman: "It is called the guillotine." The French vulnerability probably makes them more dangerous but if Ireland are at their best there may only be a razor's width between them.
Stade de France teams
15 C Dominici (Stade Français)
14 A Rougerie (Clermont)
13 F Fritz (Toulouse)
12 D Marty (Perpignan)
11 C Heymans (Toulouse)
10 F Michalak (Toulouse)
9 J-B Elissalde (Toulouse)
1 O Milloud (Bourgoin)
2 R Ibañez (Wasps)
3 P de Villiers (Stade Français)
4 F Pelous (Toulouse, capt)
5 J Thion (Biarritz)
6 Y Nyanga (Toulouse)
7 O Magne (London Irish)
8 J Bonnaire (Bourgoin)
Replacements: S Bruno (Sale); S Marconnet (Stade Français); L Nallet (Castres Olympique); R Martin (Stade Français); D Yachvili (Biarritz); B Boyet (Bourgoin); L Valbon (Brive).
15 G Murphy (Leicester)
14 S Horgan (Leinster)
13 B O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt)
12 G D'Arcy (Leinster)
11 T Bowe (Ulster)
10 R O'Gara (Munster)
9 P Stringer (Munster)
1 R Corrigan (Leinster)
2 J Flannery (Munster)
3 J Hayes (Munster)
4 M O'Kelly (Leinster)
5 P O'Connell (Munster)
6 S Easterby (Llanelli Scarlets)
7 D Wallace (Munster)
8 D Leamy (Munster)
Replacements: R Best (Ulster); S Best (Ulster); D O'Callaghan (Munster); J O'Connor (Wasps); E Reddan (Wasps); D Humphreys (Ulster); A Trimble (Ulster).
Referee: P Honiss (New Zealand)
Kick-off: Tomorrow 1.30pm (BBC1)Reuse content