Paul O'Connell: We can't be a soft touch
Irish captain wary of his own team's errors but warns France he expects to triumph in Paris
Stade de France, the 80,000-capacity venue in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis, is not quite the Parc des Princes: somehow, the old rugby battlefield to the west of town, out near the Bois de Boulogne, seemed noisier and more intimidating, despite being half the size. But after some initial discomfort, Les Bleus now feel at home in their current surroundings – they have not lost a Six Nations game there since England turned them over four years ago – and if anyone has helped the settling-in process along, it is the Irish.
Since losing to Brian O'Driscoll and company in 2000, the year the Five Nations became Six, the French have had themselves a ball in this fixture, averaging more than 36 points a game. It was little wonder, then, that Paul O'Connell, the Ireland captain in O'Driscoll's prolonged injury absence, talked yesterday of a common theme running through the last five matches: namely, the donation of "soft tries" to the home side.
"We have to play in the right parts of the pitch," said the Lions lock, looking ahead to tomorrow's rearranged round-two fixture, which fell victim last month to a combination of plummeting Parisian temperatures, a laughably late kick-off time and some cack-handed management from the Six Nations hierarchy.
"A big part of this will be eradicating the errors that have cost us momentum in the past. "We have to take our best game to France. When we play to our potential, we can beat anyone. The challenge is reaching that level."
By losing at home to a weakened Wales in their opening match, O'Connell's team caused themselves a good deal of collateral damage: for one thing, the coach Declan Kidney's prospects of challenging for the Lions job in Australia next year pretty much evaporated in the time it took Ireland to fritter away a winning advantage in the closing minutes of a game as peculiar as it was captivating. On top of that, the postponement in France and the rescheduling of the match in a Sunday slot left them contemplating a six-day turnaround before next weekend's meeting with Scotland in Dublin. France, strangely enough, have a full week to prepare for the visit of England, which is also being played on the sabbath.
O'Connell acknowledged that while the French were a very long way short of optimum form in Edinburgh last weekend, their powerful scrummaging had made up for many of the things missing in other areas.
"They seem to have an awful lot of confidence at the set piece," the captain said. "It's obviously a massive part of their game. They didn't tap any of their free-kicks. They always went for the scrum instead."
Assuming the French go for broke at close quarters again tomorrow – and why wouldn't they, with a prop as destructive as Nicolas Mas on the tight-head side of their front row? – the Leinster loose-head specialist Cian Healy can expect to be sorely tested. For much of this season, the dynamic Dubliner has looked capable of mounting a serious challenge to Gethin Jenkins of Wales in the contest for the Lions No 1 jersey. If he can find a way through this minefield, his odds will shorten.
France have been forced into a change at full-back, having lost the exhilarating Toulouse counter-attacker Maxime Médard to a long-term knee injury. They will probably cope. Médard's replacement is Clément Poitrenaud, who also plays for the four-times European champions and is every bit as lethal in broken field. Ireland will be watching him very closely indeed.
Results so far: France 30-12 Italy, Scotland 6-13 England, Ireland 21-23 Wales; Italy 15-19 England, Wales 27-13 Scotland; Ireland 42-10 Italy, England 12-19 Wales, Scotland 17-23 France.
Remaining fixtures: Tomorrow France v Ireland. 10 Mar Wales v Italy, Ireland v Scotland. 11 Mar France v England. 17 Mar Italy v Scotland, Wales v France, England v Ireland.
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