O'Sullivan dismisses critics as Irish battle the odds

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Ireland's players, if they crane their necks in the right direction, can see the Arc de Triomphe from their Paris city-centre hotel. Should they be in search of an analogy to unsettle the French today, they may reflect that construction of the arch was abandoned for a quarter of a century when there was trouble with the foundations. France began their post-World Cup restoration by establishing what looked to be a solid structure when they won in Scotland last Sunday, but both Les Bleus and the Irish, who edged past Italy, have made changes to winning teams in the meantime.

France suffered injuries to the debutant try-scorer Julien Malzieu and No 8 Elvis Vermeulen and with a little additional tinkering by the coach, Marc Lièvremont, they will take the Stade de France field for the first time since losing to England in the World Cup with a more familiar line-up. There is a classic grit-and-guile second row formed by Arnaud Méla and the captain, Lionel Nallet, and another chance to judge the flanker fast making a name for himself – albeit an unpronounceable one – Fulgence Ouedraogo.

"Two of our three tries in Scotland were a bit fortunate, but luck smiles on you when you have a go," said Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, the France scrum-half.

Good luck and Lièvremont (pictured, below) winning the sartorial stakes with his polo-necked sweater? Ireland, who have lost their last six matches against the French, really could be in trouble.

"I know there must be a logic in what France have done, but rather than delve into what they are doing it is better we play what's in front of us," said Eddie O'Sullivan, Ireland's head coach, as a spring-like sun shone on Paris yesterday. His team's estimable three Triple Crowns in four years merely highlight their inability to win the championship since 1985; France have taken the title four times out of the last six.

"Criticism is only other people's opinions," O'Sullivan said. "We are all human and no one likes being criticised, but it's part of the job. The most important thing is not to let it affect how you do your job. We have won games in the past when we have not played well. Even the perfect performance is not the perfect performance."

Ireland might get somewhere near what they want – and O'Sullivan sorely needs – if Bernard Jackman, the former Sale hooker winning his sixth cap at the age of 31, and his fellow cueball-head John Hayes in the front row can snooker the French and allow an Irish back row (arguably better balanced now that Denis Leamy is on the flank instead of Simon Easterby) to lay a workable platform for Brian O'Driscoll and friends behind.

Shane Horgan, who proved his fitness in an A-team match against England Saxons eight days ago, could be a useful impact player on the bench. Three substitutes – each of them a Leinster player – from last Saturday's 16-11 win over Italy start today: Jackman, Rob Kearney on the wing and No 8 Jamie Heaslip. The latter was outstanding in Leinster's Heineken Cup win over Toulouse four weeks ago; take care with that formline, though, because Toulouse won the pool and Leinster were knocked out.

"One thing we spoke about from last week was that we got very flat as a backline," O'Driscoll, the Ireland captain, said. "The French have quite fast line speed, so you do have to take another yard or two of depth to give yourself more time and not limit your options."

On the other hand, if Ireland sit too deep without generating sufficient pace they will get driven back.

All their backs must match O'Driscoll's speed over the ground and snappiness of pass. Ireland have won once in Paris since 1972 – when O'Driscoll scored a hat-trick of tries in 2000 – and the captain admitted: "That seems like an eternity ago."

The Toulouse wing Vincent Clerc, who scored two tries in Scotland, was dropped then restored when Malzieu tore a thigh muscle, hailed the French public. "They were there for us during the World Cup and the taste for rugby which they had during that competition must continue."

Even so, if Ireland overturn odds of 6-1 against a France win, Clerc may be wise to head for the Arc and make like the Unknown Soldier.

Today's Stade de France teams

France

15 C Heymans (Toulouse)

14 A Rougerie(Clermont)

13 D Marty (Perpignan)

12 D Traille (Biarritz)

11 V Clerc (Toulouse)

10 D Skrela (S Français)

9 J-B Elissalde (Toulouse)

1 N Mas (Perpignan)

2 D Szarzewksi (S Français)

3 L Faure (Sale)

4 A Méla (Albi)

5 L Nallet (Castres, capt)

6 F Ouedraogo (Montpellier)

7 T Dusautoir (Toulouse)

8 J Bonnaire (Clermont)

Replacements: 16W Servat (Toulouse), 17 J Brugnaut (Dax), 18 L Jacquet (Clermont), 19 L Picamoles(Montpelier), 20 M Parra (Bourgoin), 21 F Trinh-Duc (Montpellier), 22 A Floch(Clermont).

Ireland

15 G Dempsey (Leinster)

14 G Murphy (Leicester)

13 B O'Driscoll (Lnstr, capt)

12 A Trimble (Ulster)

11 R Keanery (Leinster)

10 R O'Gara (Munster)

9 E Reddan (Wasps)

1 M Horan (Munster)

2 B Jackman (Leinster)

3 J Hayes (Munster)

4 D O'Callaghan (Munster)

5 M O'Kelly (Leinster)

6 D Leamy (Munster)

7 D Wallace (Munster)

8 J Heaslip (Leinster)

Replacements: 16 R Best (Ulster), 17 T Buckley (Munster), 18 M O'Driscoll (Munster), 19 S Easterby (Llanelli), 20 P Stringer (Munster), 21 P Wallace (Ulster), 22 S Horgan (Leinster).

Referee: N Owens (Wales)

Kick-off: 4pm (BBC 1)

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