Most international coaches would agree that no matter how difficult the next match may be – and there are few games more difficult than those against the All Blacks or the Springboks – there is some peace of mind, if not much, in knowing exactly what to expect come kick-off time. The problem with coaching against France is that the French aren't sure what they expect of themselves, which leaves everyone else completely in the dark. If they have always had that touch of mystery about them, they are extraordinarily hard to second-guess right now.
Wales didn't second-guess them, that's for sure. Marc Lièvremont, perhaps the most talked-about and analysed coach in world rugby, summoned a performance of great physical intensity from his pack when the Six Nations champions travelled to Paris 15 days ago, but there is always a chance of that happening at Stade de France. What the Welsh couldn't have predicted was the return to brilliance of the remarkably athletic No 8 Imanol Harinordoquy, who put on quite a show, and the influence wielded by the young outside-half François Trinh-Duc off the bench.
Having won the game against most predictions, guess what? Lièvremont has tweaked his line-up yet again, recalling Lionel Faure at prop; drafting in a big, grafting lock in Jérôme Thion; and moving Sébastien Chabal into what is now a truly massive back row. However, the player who fascinates me is Trinh-Duc, who starts at 10 against England tomorrow. We're talking about a rare talent here. He is inexperienced and erratic, yet determined to play it his way irrespective of team orders. It's an interesting mix, as any coach will tell you.
We already understand how England are likely to play: their selection tells us virtually everything we need to know. They have brought in some close-quarter grunt in the shape of Simon Shaw, while compensating for the loss of Nick Kennedy at the line-out by promoting Tom Croft ahead of James Haskell. This suggests to me that Toby Flood will kick more from outside-half than he has thus far in the tournament. It also suggests Martin Johnson regards this as a must-win fixture. When a manager calls in a 35-year-old lock to get him out of a jam, you know he's not too interested in building for a World Cup two and a half years down the road.
Lièvremont is gearing everything towards that tournament. He seems to have had an open and honest conversation, both with his employers at the French Federation and with the rugby public at large, about the precise position of, and expectations surrounding, the national team, and emerged with something that looks suspiciously like carte blanche.
I'm beginning to think he's been rather clever. Any coach who negotiates himself a licence to spend two years rebuilding without worrying about results is quite an operator, and Lièvremont will look very good indeed if he spends the next two years ensuring his best side gets some miles under its belt and reaches 2011 in optimum shape. He has gone wide in selection initially, as a prelude to going narrow. England seem to be doing it the other way round, which is why a player as good as Mathew Tait is still twiddling his thumbs.
One outside centre who seems fully involved is Brian O'Driscoll, and his return to peak form is one of the best reasons for thinking Ireland might win a first Grand Slam in more than 60 years. He does not astonish us quite as regularly as seven or eight years ago – his rugby for the Lions against Australia in 2001 was sensational – but is still a player of the highest class, especially now he has lost the equivalent of seven or eight pints of Guinness from around his waist. It is a mark of Declan Kidney's work with Ireland that they appear both fitter and more driven than they did in the latter stages of Eddie O'Sullivan's time as head coach.
Scotland will ask some questions at Murrayfield this evening, but if Ronan O'Gara starts well – his first couple of touches in a game frequently tell you how he'll go for the rest of it – Ireland will probably find a way to win and give themselves one big shot at glory next week.Reuse content