Ireland are gearing up for the "ultimate challenge" at the Stade de France today against a French side who believe the Grand Slam champions are "cheats".
Declan Kidney's side go into this pivotal Six Nations showdown against a backdrop of one win in 38 years in France and with the verbal taunts of the Six Nations favourites ringing in their ears. Earlier this week France coach Marc Lièvremont and second row Lionel Nallet criticised the conservative nature of Ireland's play and yesterday scrum-half Morgan Parra labelled them as cheats.
"They cheat every weekend," said Parra. "So that won't be a surprise. They have experienced players who can do so. We dissected the video very well. There's not a moment when they're not cheating.
"They have a great defence, [they're] cheating but intelligently cheating. It's very well done. If we did the same thing, we would be punished each time. But instead they're the least penalised team in the tournament, which is very impressive.
"The Irish have a great team, with a Munster spine, but I am not impressed," added Parra. "We can be by certain players but not in general. How many matches have they gone without defeat? Twelve? Well fine, that will finish at 12 this Saturday."
Ireland's management and players have not responded in kind, speaking only of their respect for the French this week and yesterday Kidney spoke of the enormity of the challenge facing his players today.
"If you are not excited by this challenge, there is no reason to be here," said Kidney. "When you look at their home record it is probably the ultimate challenge in the Six Nations." Ireland had a run out at the Stade de France with flanker Stephen Ferris (only cleared to start on Thursday after missing the opening win over Italy with a knee injury) sitting out the session. However, Kidney allayed any fears over the Ulster man's fitness.
"It was prudent for him to sit training out as there's a balance to strike when a player comes back in. Stephen is fine, he's been charging around in training but we wanted to hold him back a bit," said Kidney.
Victory today does not just further Ireland's Six Nations ambitions, it is of massive psychological significance as Kidney marches his troops towards next year's World Cup in New Zealand.
England had similar objectives in the run-up to the 2003 tournament: build confidence for the ultimate challenge by winning in Paris and in the southern hemisphere – which Kidney will attempt in Australia and New Zealand this summer.
Defeat would create doubts and shatter the veneer of impregnability that has built up around this squad over the course of their 14-month unbeaten run. If Kidney is to mastermind Ireland to victory, it will depend to a large degree on Les Kiss's defensive system standing up to the inevitable French attacks.
Kiss produced the most miserly defence in last year's Six Nations, an essential component in Ireland's Grand Slam surge, although the Australian will remember how French brilliance cut open the Irish twice in Croke Park last year.
Much has been made of centre Mathieu Bastareaud's two tries against Scotland but Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy have seen it all before and Ireland's captain was never going to be intimidated by a lumpen 21-year-old. "The days of being frightened are well and truly behind me," said O'Driscoll when asked about Bastareaud yesterday.
"You're always wary of who you play against, and understand their skill set but also realise you bring your own skill set."
More relevant is the threat posed by Vincent Clerc. His seven tries from five outings against Ireland has been well flagged and it is remarkable that one of the sharpest wingers in the world was not first choice heading into the tournament.
Rob Kearney did not enjoy his finest outing last weekend with his kicking attracting the greatest criticism. However he made worthy contributions in attack and under the high ball.
Nonetheless, the criticism will have stung and you would put a hefty wager on a monumental response this evening from a player of world-class quality.
Ferris's return to the side is very important from a defensive aspect also while, at scrum-half, Tomas O'Leary will have a watching brief around the side of scrums and mauls which a mobile and aggressive French back row will explore. Another area where the Irish need to plant their flag is the set-pieces. Leo Cullen and Paul O'Connell look to have an athletic edge over their counterparts, but Imanol Harinordoquy must be carefully policed, as must Julien Bonnaire when he appears off the bench.
Once again, the engagements at scrum time will be crucial. The Irish fared extremely well against a highly rated Italian unit but the French present a different, and more intense, challenge. All the power is channelled down the middle of the scrum and Irish hooker Jerry Flannery will be targeted in a manner reminiscent of the French sides of the early 80s who selected three props in their front row and opted for the eight-man shove on their put-in as well as the opposition's.
Once Ireland have possession, outside-half Ronan O'Gara will test the fielding capacity of France's back three. Backline moves were at a premium against Italy but we can expect some today which the French will not have had an opportunity to properly study, incorporating a more prominent display from Tommy Bowe through the middle. Which is where O'Driscoll and D'Arcy can do damage.
It is a massive ask for Ireland but Kidney's career is marked by victories against the odds, founded on exhaustive preparation and a Midas touch.
France v Ireland
Stade de France teams
R Kearney (Leinster) 15
T Bowe (Ospreys) 14
B O'Driscoll (Lein, c) 13
G D'Arcy (Leinster) 12
K Earls (Munster) 11
R O'Gara (Munster) 10
T O'Leary (Munster) 9
C Healy (Leinster) 1
J Flannery (Munster) 2
J Hayes (Munster) 3
L Cullen (Leinster) 4
P O'Connell (Mun) 5
S Ferris (Ulster) 6
D Wallace (Munster) 7
J Heaslip (Leinster) 8
Replacements: 16 R Best, 17 T Court (both Ulster), 18 D Ryan (Mun), 19 S O'Brien, 20 E Reddan, 21 J Sexton (all Leinster), 22 P Wallace (Ulster).
C Poitrenaud (Toul) 15
V Clerc (Toulouse) 14
M Bastareaud (Stade) 13
Y Jauzion (Toulouse) 12
A Palisson (Brive) 11
F Trinh-Duc (Montfer) 10
M Parra (Clermont) 9
T Domingo (Toulouse) 1
W Servat (Toulouse) 2
N Mas (Perpignan) 3
L Nallet (R Métro) 4
P Pape (Stade Français) 5
T Dusautoir (Toul, c) 6
F Ouedraogo (Mont) 7
I Harinordoquy (Biarr) 8
Replacements: 16 D Sza-rzewski, 17 S Marconnet (both Stade), 18 J Pierre, 19 J Bonnaire (both Clermont), 20 D Marty (Perp), 21 F Michalak (Toul), 22 J Malzieu (Cler).
Referee W Barnes (England)
Kick-off 4.30pm TV BBC1Reuse content