I don’t suppose too many Englishmen see it this way, but when the final round of Six Nations matches unfolds today there will be a part of me hoping France don’t find a way to rain on Ireland’s parade.
This is not to question England’s contribution to this tournament – assuming they turn in a sound performance in Italy, they’ll emerge with a very good report card indeed – but for my money it’s the Irish who have played the slickest rugby and come closest to capturing the imagination.
Where England have been ruthlessly efficient – their defence is quite something at the moment – Ireland have been the class act in possession, bringing a wide repertoire of attacking threats to the party and outscoring their nearest rivals by almost two tries to one.
And it’s not simply down to Brian O’Driscoll either, although he’s a once-in-a-generation player who deserves to end his international career on the biggest possible high. He’s assumed god-like status in the game, a little like Martin Johnson and Jonny Wilkinson did in England around the time of the World Cup triumph.
Here at London Irish it seems as though half the supporter base will be at Stade de France to witness his farewell. If he ran for president (of his country, that is, not our club), he’d win the election by a landslide. There again, he’d have to take a pay-cut.
What Ireland have done over the last few weeks is find the critical mass essential to all successful teams. In other words, they’ve pulled together half a dozen key figures – O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and Jonny Sexton among the players; Joe Schmidt, Les Kiss and John Plumtree among the coaches – and found a common language in which to express their common purpose.
Schmidt is a clever strategist, but he’s also an excellent communicator: that dressing room can’t be the easiest to manage. My old friend Les is a shrewd operator, while Plumtree has transformed the team’s work at the set-piece, which makes him the unsung hero of this excellent tournament.
Ireland’s record against France is pretty terrible everywhere, and especially bad over there: they haven’t won in Paris since 2000. But I’m struggling to understand where this particular French team is going, or what it’s trying to achieve.
Back in the days of Bernard Laporte, you could name the starting line-up in advance, almost season on season. Now it’s a fashion parade. I know some of the big names have been unavailable, either through injury or as a result of misbehaviour, but even so the lack of continuity has been astonishing.
Looking back at the opening round of matches, England should have won in Paris, and had they done so the tournament would be in a different place. As it is, they must turn in a professional, properly tuned-in performance against the Azzurri and then hope things turn out their way a few hundred miles across the Franco-Italian border. What they absolutely cannot afford to do is put the cart before the horse.
Not so long ago, during my time in the England coaching set-up, we went to Rome for a Six Nations match and found some of the players – not many, but enough – were not in the right frame of mind. We stayed in a fine hotel overlooking the city and it may be that the luxurious nature of our surroundings backfired, because minutes before the warm-up I saw people wandering around the Stadio Flaminio with smiles on their faces. They might have been tourists! And I thought to myself: “Jeez, there’s no intensity about us. We could struggle here.” As it turned out, we won – but it was a squeeze, not a breeze.
If you’re five per cent off your game at Test level, it’s enough to condemn you to defeat. Happily, I don’t get the impression that these England players are prone to taking things for granted, one of the reasons – or rather, two of the reasons – being the Farrells, father and son.
Andy Farrell is clearly a big figure in the coaching team and an even bigger one in the dressing room when it comes to setting the right tone. He plays the “bad cop” role to perfection, a tough-minded sort who can sense even the slightest drop-off in attitude and address it in no uncertain terms.
Owen, a chip off the old block, brings the same ferocious commitment to his work at outside-half. His kicking against Wales last weekend was outstanding, but more than that his line-speed in defence made life horrendously difficult for the visitors in general and for Rhys Priestland, his opposite number, in particular. Priestland dropped deeper and deeper as the game went on, yet never found a way to shake off his rival. Most English 10s couldn’t tackle a ham sandwich; Farrell would tackle a truck.
All things considered, then, I expect England to end the tournament on a high note, especially if they follow the Irish model and force the Italians into making 200 tackles. No team, however enthusiastic, can hold themselves together under that kind of pressure.
As for O’Driscoll and his countrymen, they clearly have the quality to prevail in Paris and walk away with the title – which would be no more than the great centre deserves. But if the French actually turn up… who knows?
Brian Smith is the director of rugby at London Irish and a former England attack coach