Ireland sense chance to exploit French inexperience

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The Independent Online

On one of those glorious early spring days that seem a divine right in this part of the world, Ireland were hopeful they had glimpsed a chink of light in their opening Six Nations opposition. France's selection of new caps at hooker and in the second row - William Servat and Pascal Papé respectively - offers the priceless chance of an opening blitz of quality Irish possession.

At least, that was how the Ireland coach, Eddie O'Sullivan, saw it, to judge by his use of a Gaelic phrase: "Tosac maith, leath na h-oibre". Literally, it means "a good start is half the work" or, put more roughly, "best foot forward, lads".

O'Sullivan knows what is at stake if his team start slowly. In his first season as coach, Ireland lost 44-5 at the Stade de France. The most recent meeting, a World Cup quarter-final last October, went a similar way.

O'Sullivan put that 43-21 drubbing in Melbourne down to, "giving up 27 points in the first half". It is taken as read throughout the visiting squad that, if France get anything like a decent points cushion, they will proceed to beat the Irish about the head with it.

"It's much easier to start well if you have the ball," said O'Sullivan, at the team's sumptuous eve-of-match base next to the Palace of Versailles. "That way, you can play your way into the game. We had a good strike rate in poaching at the line-out in the World Cup, and France have got two new players in that area."

At O'Sullivan's side, Ireland's new captain, Paul O'Connell, was inwardly saying 'aye' to that, but otherwise the 24-year-old Munster lock was calmness personified, perhaps reflecting the caretaker nature of his role while Brian O'Driscoll is absent with a hamstring injury. "I'll have a few words before the match," said O'Connell, "but the days of punching the walls have gone."

O'Driscoll, who has put six tries past France in his time, chose to stay in Dublin to continue the intensive rehab he hopes will lead to a comeback against Wales tomorrow week. Given that Geordan Murphy and Denis Hickie are also missing from the backline, an awful lot of attention has come the way of Gordon D'Arcy at outside centre.

Not that O'Sullivan was at any pains to ease the expectation on O'Driscoll's replacement, who turned 24 on Tuesday and makes his first start after five caps from the bench. "All the indications are that Gordon will have a big game - if he gets the quality of ball he needs."

France's physically intimidating centre pairing, Damien Traille and Yannick Jauzion, will have something to say about that. And if Servat and Papé settle to their task - they have 156 Tests-worth of experience in the remainder of the front five to help them - O'Sullivan's worst fears may be confirmed.

The returning Pieter de Villiers will look to take out the frustration of missing the World Cup, and Bernard Laporte, France's coach, expects Papé to "explode" on the highest stage. At scrum-half, Jean-Baptiste EIlissalde emulates his father, Jean-Pierre, in reaching his fifth cap almost four years since his debut, and should dovetail easily with his Toulouse colleague, Frédéric Michalak.

Looking on the bright side, Ireland have won three out of their last five fixtures against the French. Time's Madame Guillotine has caught up on both countries' World Cup captains - Keith Wood and Fabien Galthié - and there is much to play for. But as O'Connell cast his gaze over the countless beautiful acres laid out at Versailles by Louis XIV, you sensed Paul the First would settle for respectability on a comparatively tiny rectangle of turf north of Paris this afternoon.

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