O'Sullivan keeps Irish minds on the job in hand

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As if Eddie O'Sullivan did not have enough on his plate, the Ireland head coach yesterday found himself being dragged into a needless debate about Jonathan Kaplan's refereeing of the Ireland v England match 13 days ago.

As if Eddie O'Sullivan did not have enough on his plate, the Ireland head coach yesterday found himself being dragged into a needless debate about Jonathan Kaplan's refereeing of the Ireland v England match 13 days ago.

O'Sullivan's French counterpart, Bernard Laporte, came out in support of England's Andy Robinson earlier in the week, accusing Ireland of having joined rucks from the side "at least 10 times".

O'Sullivan replied: "I was amazed Bernard felt the need to comment on a game he had no involvement in 10 days after it happened. He talked about a referee who will not play any part in tomorrow's match. Bernard is mischievously trying to put pressure on Tony Spreadbury - that's my take on it."

Then it was back to the main event, which is potentially Ireland's penultimate step into history. Today's match with the Tricolores.

"We always have a huge respect for France and we saw in the first half against Wales how they can open up and find another gear," said O'Sullivan. "We are working on the assumption that we will get that version of France for the full 80 minutes, in which case we must be at our very best."

The team's focus must be the match and not the Championship or the Grand Slam - which would be only the second in Ireland's history after the triumph of 1948.

The captain Brian O'Driscoll said: "There is always going to be more pressure when you start winning - that's natural. The level of expectation from the Irish public has heightened, but the players' expectation has also risen. We don't want to be nearly men - we want something tangible as evidence of our improvement.

"Of course nerves will come into it but dealing with those is part of the process of improving as a player and a team. The great teams perform as if that pressure isn't there. France are a huge challenge for us, but we can beat them."

The injury to the France centre Ludovic Valbon which forced his withdrawal in midweek has presented Benoit Baby with his international debut. And despite not having won a cap yet, the Toulouse centre has not escaped O'Sullivan's attention.

"He is a very clever, very fast player," said the Irish coach. "He will pose a different kind of threat from Valbon." The role of baby-minder will probably fall to the Ulster centre Kevin Maggs, a hard-tackling, no-nonsense player who earned a recall to the colours after Gordon D'Arcy and Shane Horgan failed to recover from injury.

Maggs, who wins his 68th cap today, lines up with O'Driscoll as Ireland's fourth centre pairing of the tournament, though he played as a replacement in Ireland's second match of the tournament, against Scotland.

"I've played with Brian on many occasions. With Shane and Gordon injured, I've been given another chance to show what I can do," he said. "The midfield is going to be an important area. France have strong centres and I want to confront them as much as possible."

France will be just as determined. They may not be able to achieve a Grand Slam, but the Championship title is certainly a possibility. If nothing else they will want to make it a truly memorable day for their captain Fabien Pelous, who will join an élite band of players when he wins his 100th cap for his country. Ireland's wing Denis Hickie, incidentally, will be running out for the 50th time.

Pelous, who has captained his country in more than 20 Tests, will become only the second French player, after Philippe Sella, and the first French forward to achieve the distinction.

"Ireland have been playing well for the last four or five years, improving all the time," said Pelous' coach yesterday. "And right now, with three wins behind them, they will have set their hearts on winning something they have been dreaming about for so long - the Grand Slam."

The match will be won or lost among the forwards, as usual. The Ireland front five are much-fancied and vastly experienced, while their line-out has two of the wiliest performers in Malcolm O'Kelly and Paul O'Connell. The experienced locks are expected to make the British and Irish Lions Test team in New Zealand this summer.

Facing them, Pelous and his second-row partner Jerome Thion will have their work cut out, while the set-piece promises to test the strength, stamina and technique of all 16 men concerned with that shadowy area.

Focus and fitness would seem to be the keys to this encounter. And while there is no obvious loser, nor is there a clear winner. With the bulk of a 48,000 Lansdowne Road crowd howling them to greater things, the chances are that the men in green will edge it. But it is likely to be close.

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