Roof Shut on Irish Ambitions!

I’m just back from a rugby trip to Cardiff; a quite delightful city even if the weather left much to be desired. I was over to see the Grand Slam game between Ireland and Wales at the Principality Stadium. Good times alright, despite an awful result from an Irish viewpoint. The build-up was dominated, of course, by ‘roofgate’.

Much has been made of Joe Schmidt’s contentious decision to keep the stadium roof open. A lot has been written and usually utter nonsense. Irish reluctance to play ball, so to speak, with the roof issue was attributed to concern over the conditions caused by the de facto indoor atmosphere when the roof is shut.

In fact, Irish opposition was more psychological than practical. And the rules of engagement here are simple. If your opponent asks you to do something, you do the precise opposite. It’s important not to cede an inch and do anything that gives your rival even the slightest advantage.

It’s like when Martin Johnson trod all over Mary McAleese’s lovely red carpet in 2003. The former England skipper’s actions were portrayed at the time as premeditated and deeply provocative; a deliberate snub to Ireland’s popular head of state. But it had bugger all to do with any of that.

Johnson’s men mistakenly found themselves on the wrong side following a balls up in pre-match organisation and protocol. However, when asked repeatedly to move, Johnson and his lieutenants famously held firm. To move in that situation is a sign of weakness. And the Lions legend doesn’t do weakness. The entire Irish army could have descended on Lansdowne Road that day and Johnson wouldn’t have budged. This is the mind-set Ireland were in before the Wales showdown.

In the end, it didn’t work. Wales adapted to the conditions and were infinitely superior on the day. From my vantage point, Ireland had only a handful of notable attacks and barely looked like scoring prior to Jordan Larmour’s late consolation. While the logic of Schmidt’s stubbornness is plain to see, the strategy backfired painfully. What Ireland’s roof decision betrayed, actually, was a lack of confidence in their ability to play in the closed conditions. Whether that’s true or not is a moot point. It’s what it looked like. That was the clear message delivered to the opposition.

The perceived decline in Ireland’s game has been much discussed and dissected lately. While overplayed, there’s indeed a discernible fall from a team that rose so magnificently to second in the world on the back of only its third Grand Slam in history and a maiden win over the All Blacks on home soil. What on earth has happened?

Actually, it’s not rocket science. Opponents have worked Ireland out. Ironically, the fall from grace is a direct consequence of success. Ireland are watched more closely than ever and cracks have appeared. Schmidt’s highly patterned and programmed game plan works brilliantly when winning the collisions and dominating the physical battle. Ireland are a fantastic front foot team and look awesome when settled into their rhythm.

What other teams have clocked is: match Ireland in the contact areas and force them onto the back foot and their game is severely disrupted. England set the template and everyone else followed suit. In fact, all the signature losses of the Schmidt era have followed this familiar theme. This team sometimes struggles to wrest back control when the game drifts away. Regaining initiative is an art form and one Schmidt’s side hasn’t quite mastered yet.

Momentum isn’t helped, moreover, when your two best players are misfiring. Johnny Sexton cut a deflated and annoyed figure on Saturday and urgently needs to find his form. Ireland’s half backs were well below their lofty standards throughout this championship and the malaise has affected the whole team. Criticism is as ignorant as it is unfair, however. The two lads are genuinely brilliant and will bounce back emphatically from this temporary setback. No doubt about that. It’s time to keep the faith.

That applies to us all. How quickly we jump off the bandwagon following a couple of off key performances. Joe Schmidt insists it’ll be alright at the World Cup and who are we to disagree. Ireland’s coaching master has earned our trust. He’s had blips before and come through stronger and wiser for the experience.

Of course, it’s better if Ireland had delivered more consistently this championship, but these things happen. Better to find out now than at the World Cup. Plenty of time left for Schmidt and his squad to find the answers they need before it all kicks off in Japan. And if they don’t? Well, it’s not the end of the world. These days we don’t have to look too far to put sport into proper perspective.

P.S. As I watched Cardiff erupt on Saturday and saw delirious fans dancing in torrential rain, I couldn’t help but contrast the jubilant scenes with the political wrangling occurring in the Welsh game presently. Rugby is Wales’s national sport, but you only understand that when you go there. After the final whistle, everyone I met (men, women, children, of all ages and classes) were celebrating the win. This is their team. Their sport. The pride was palpable. I’ve never seen anything like it. Food for thought for the WRU. If rugby can’t make the professional game work in Wales, we should give up. Because if rugby can’t make it there, it can’t make it anywhere.

 

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

 

 

 

 

Ireland Miles Ahead!

The late, great Roger Bannister broke the four minute mile barrier in 1954. He was the first athlete to break the much coveted record. Previously it had been assumed a nigh on impossible task. But Bannister believed in his ability and had the ambition, conviction and perseverance to make his dream happen. Lesser mortals crumbled, but Bannister stuck to his task and achieved greatness in the end. Inspiring isn’t the word.

But a curious thing then happened. Within six weeks the new record was broken. And within a decade, five other athletes had managed this once miraculous feat. Because Bannister had proved it was possible, the psychological barrier was removed. Sub four minute miles were no longer viewed as unachievable.

In much the same way, Irish rugby’s own psychological block in relation to the All Blacks is now lifted. Of course there was always the talent and potential to overcome the world’s best, but prior to that unforgettable evening in Chicago in 2016, there was no history, no precedent and no experience to draw on. Post Chicago, I ventured that we wouldn’t have to wait another century to beat New Zealand. So it has proved.

It’s just incredible to think how far Irish rugby has come. Those of us old enough to remember the irredeemably grim days of the 1990s scarcely believe what is happening. Three Six Nations titles-including a second Slam-, a first win over South Africa away from the auld sod, a first series win in Australia over three Tests and not one but two, yes two, wins over the double world champions. Even the golden generation didn’t come close to this. And now the man who masterminded the whole enterprise is off. Oh no! At least the exit was well signposted. Joe had the courtesy to prepare us, bless him!

I’m fascinated by the idea of difference between public and private personas. We know the public persona of Joe Schmidt. Witty, self-deprecating, engaging, erudite and even charming, almost avuncular at times. But there’s clearly another Joe, one the public doesn’t see. There’s Joe Schmidt the coach. I’ve never met the man but the players’ testimony reveals a clear picture of an extremely driven man: tough, uncompromising, exacting and ruthless. A winner.

The Kiwi’s often brutal Monday morning video review sessions are, of course, the stuff of rugby legend. One reason the Kiwis have struggled against Schmidt is they’ve been outwitted by one of their own. Joe thinks exactly the same way they do; he’s a hard working perfectionist who patently detests losing.

One word comes up consistently in any discussion about Ireland’s coach: detail. Schmidt imparts a wealth of detail and knowledge and expects players to do their homework in return. This approach insists on the highest standards, reflecting an Irish set-up that’s set a new benchmark in professionalism and preparation. Irish success over the past six years hasn’t happened by accident.

Although we still have him for another year, time is fast running out on the Schmidt era, with Ireland’s best ever coach stepping down after next year’s World Cup to take a much deserved break and spend some time with his family. Ireland’s highly regarded defence coach Andy Farrell has got the unenviable task of following the guru and while everyone associated with Irish rugby wishes him well, it’s hard to see Schmidt’s unprecedented success being replicated.

The former Rugby League star is a charismatic and capable coach, one who’s obviously gained the Schmidt seal of approval. He has, however, never been the main man and earns his promotion in the unforgiving glare of the international arena. It’s a tough ask but the steely Englishman is undoubtedly up for the challenge.

And the incoming head coach has the fortune of inheriting the greatest environment in Test Rugby and Irish rugby history. Schmidt’s set up is the envy of the rugby world and he leaves a legacy that will enrich the sport in Ireland for years to come. Farrell is taking charge of a young, fearless team, one that is teeming with ambition and focused firmly on continuing its remarkable run of success. Ireland’s young guns are far from finished and that is supremely exciting. The likes of James Ryan and Jacob Stockdale have years left in them.

But for all Farrell’s prospective riches, he has one hell of an act to follow. Because Ireland’s favourite Kiwi has taken Irish rugby into uncharted territory. Our best ever World Cup performance surely awaits next year. New Zealand remain the standard bearers and are still the most talented side in world rugby. However, in terms of preparation and professional standards, Schmidt’s Ireland are miles ahead of the competition.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

Image: @OvalDigest [Public domain or CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Respect Earned The Hard Way!

‘Passionate.’ That’s the adjective once commonly used to describe the Irish rugby team. The term was particularly prevalent among the rugby giants of the southern hemisphere. Prior to any big game against opponents from south of the equator, rival players would queue up to tell us how respectful they were of the fighting Irish and how they were  wary of the ‘passion’ Ireland always brought to the party. These extremely patronising descriptions made the cream of Irish sport sound more like horny Love Island contestants than elite sportsmen.

The curious thing about the ‘passion’ label is that was applied long after Ireland became genuine and legitimate contenders on the international stage. In the old amateur and semi-professional days such condescension was perhaps forgivable, but even as the golden generation of Irish rugby was strutting its stuff on the Test stage, opponents could still be heard routinely rabbiting on about Ireland and their famed passion.

I used to wonder about this bizarre tendency. It was excusable when Irish results were unremittingly poor, but why did such attitudes prevail when the men in green were regularly winning in the Test arena? The answer was delivered in the context of Ireland’s unremarkable record against the All Blacks-just one win recorded in countless attempts; last November in Chicago. Before a New Zealand Test a few years ago, I read an interview with a former All Black international explaining the apparent lack of recognition afforded to Ireland’s finest. ‘In order to gain our respect,’ he explained, ‘you have to beat us.’

Well, the vernacular surrounding Irish international rugby has changed markedly from the well worn and tiresome platitudes of the past. Opponents from near and far are falling over themselves to fawn over Joe Schmidt’s record breaking outfit. Recent results tell a magnificent and unprecedented story. Three Six Nations Championships, a Grand Slam, a first win over the Springboks on South African soil and the aforementioned maiden win over the world champion All Blacks is a truly formidable record. And now, remarkably, Ireland’s first ever southern hemisphere series win (against a revitalised Australia) contested over three Tests has just been achieved.

And to think there were idiots calling for Schmidt’s head not so long ago. The absurdity! Ireland’s favourite Kiwi has built a relentless and formidable squad, one capable of consistently overcoming anyone in world rugby. Number two in the world and on merit. And this side is taking Irish rugby to uncharted territory; places the golden generation could only dream of.

At the turn of the century, we marvelled at the infusion of youngsters like Brian O’Driscoll and Ronan O’Gara who entered Test rugby without the fear and inferiority complex that blighted their predecessors. But the current crop is the product of an even more impressive harvest. Today’s youngsters literally expect to win every game they play. Take James Ryan. Ireland’s new dynamo of a second row has only lost one match as a professional rugby player. Consider that for a moment!

But this is what we’re dealing with. Schmidt and his squad of modest and humble superstars are taking Irish rugby to new, exciting places. The overriding concern of the Irish coach post the 2015 World Cup was to build new depth and resourcefulness into the Irish squad. And while some positions remain relatively callow, there’s no doubt Irish rugby is in as strong a position as it’s ever been. Winning plaudits from all corners of the globe and primed for an assault on rugby’s premier competition. The trophies, of course, tell their own tale, but if you need substantive proof of the esteem Ireland’s players are currently held, just listen to the respectful way opponents are now talking about them. Respect that’s been earned the hard way!

PS The football World Cup has kicked off in far away Russia and the tournament has thus far been characterised by a series of upsets and unexpected results. Despite the unpredictable start, few are expecting too many surprises come the business end of the competition. It’ll be the usual suspects in with a chance of ultimate glory. Or will it? They always seem to fall short and are perpetually addicted to underachievement, but England are due to perform in a major tournament one of these days. Maybe, just maybe, 2018 will be the year?

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

The Acid Test

In rugby terms, there are few contests to get the juices flowing quite like a tussle with Warren Gatland’s Wales. We know that Wales’s irascible coach loves to beat the Irish, that he values nothing more than wiping the smirk off contented Hibernian faces. No matter about gaining the upper hand over historical foe, England, Wales’s favourite Kiwi apparently prides putting the uppity Irish in their place above all else.

There’s history here you see, a bit of previous. Gatland, it seems, has never got over his 2001 deposition, when as an Irish head coach who’d just overseen a sterling campaign that saw his side defeat both England and France in a championship campaign for the first time in aeons, Ireland’s main man was abruptly sacked and replaced by his ambitious assistant, Eddie O’Sullivan. Whatever about the rights and wrongs of that dismissal (Gatland has certainly gone on to have a wondrous coaching career post Ireland), the future Welsh supremo’s unfortunate demise left a sour taste for his many admirers within and without these shores.

That’s before we even get to the Grand Slam game in 2009 and Gatland’s dropping of you know who for the final Lions Test in 2013. Sean O’Brien’s recent incendiary comments add another layer of intrigue to an already fascinating encounter. Given the palpable history and baggage attributable to Ireland-Wales matches, therefore, Irish fans are approaching Saturday’s fixture with a weary mixture of excitement and apprehension. You see, Gatland’s recent record against his former paymasters is bloody good and his Wales team always rolls into town supremely well prepared.

And Ireland, despite nominal favouritism with the bookies, are vulnerable to upset this time. As well as the aforementioned O’Brien, the hosts are without Robbie Henshaw, Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson for the seminal game of the tournament thus far. Chris Farrell will ably deputise for the magnificent Henshaw but Furlong’s replacement, Andrew Porter-despite considerable promise-looks as green as the Incredible Hulk on the tight-head side of the Irish scrum. As certain as the day is long, the visitors will target the rookie prop with an orchestrated ferocity that’ll test every inch of the youngster’s considerable mettle. As we know, Gatland teams are rarely shy about identifying weaknesses in opposition ranks and exploiting them for all they’re worth. Welcome to Test rugby, young man!

And yet if Ireland withstand the inevitable onslaught, Joe Schmidt’s men possess the class and experience to shade a close call. As Ireland’s wily head honcho reminded the press corps a couple of weeks ago, he’s yet to taste championship defeat in the Aviva as Ireland coach. It’ll take a mammoth performance to shatter that proud record. As ever, much rests on the health and well-being of Ireland’s imperious half-backs.

If Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray dodge Gatland’s bullets and stay on the field, Schmidt’s chief play makers have the intelligence and composure to steer the green ship home. If either gets lost in action, though, it’s good night Irene. For Wales undoubtedly have the class, game-plan and firepower to inflict serious damage on Schmidt’s team. This is make or break. Lose on Saturday and precious momentum is lost. However, if Ireland vanquish a familiar enemy, the boys in green are another step closer to silverware. Forget the preamble, this is the acid test.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey;

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Not Just Zebo Out In The Cold

Much has been made of Simon Zebo’s impending departure to play his rugby in France, for a yet unconfirmed destination-possibly Racing 92. As soon as it was revealed that the Irish winger/fullback had spurned the offer of a new Munster contract, speculation was rife with regard to what his exit would mean for Zebo’s international prospects. As it was, we didn’t have to wait long for an answer. Just days later, Irish coach Joe Schmidt announced an extended squad for the upcoming autumn internationals and in the lengthy list of names there was one noticeable absentee-Simon Zebo.

With Rob Kearney’s best days behind him and Jared Payne struggling to achieve an injury free run, it was widely assumed that Zebo was an absolute shoo- in for the Irish fullback berth this autumn. And yet with backfield options scarce, the Munster man has found himself surplus to requirements. Zebo’s omission has certainly shocked plenty of Irish rugby folk, with teammates and fans alike taken aback at the Munster fullback’s unexpected and sudden exclusion.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised, though. In recent years, the IRFU’S policy regarding selection has been abundantly clear. If you move abroad, you’re out! As harsh as it seems, that’s been the immutable rule. With the notable exception of Johnny Sexton (too brilliant to omit), any move outside Ireland has led to the player being sent to Coventry-mostly in a metaphorical sense, you understand, but it also applies literally in the case of Marty Moore! Sexton aside, all high profile movers have been shunned and excluded from Irish selection. It didn’t matter who you were: Ian Madigan, Donnacha Ryan, JJ Hanrahan. If you left the Irish set-up, you paid the ultimate price in terms of test selection.

What makes Zebo’s case fairly unique, though, is the shunning is happening while the player is still here. Remember, he’s not going until next season. In that sense, we can detect a hardening of the Irish management’s position. The policy couldn’t be any clearer: not only will a player not be picked if he moves abroad, it now seems he won’t be selected if it’s clear he’s unavailable for any part of the World Cup cycle. Given the dearth of current options at fullback, the easy option was to pick Zebo. He was the obvious, straightforward choice. In declining to do so, Schmidt has underlined his commitment to the homegrown policy in a devastatingly uncompromising fashion.

Make no mistake about it, Irish rugby is in a bitter fight to hold onto its biggest names. In an ultra-competitive transfer market, it’s simply not possible for the IRFU to compete with the English and French clubs, with their mega-rich benefactors. And as it’s impossible to outbid their Anglo-French rivals, the IRFU has to utilise whatever leverage it has at its disposal. One advantage is the unrivalled way players are looked after within the Irish system. Instead of being flogged to pieces in the Premiership and Top 14, the Irish provinces wrap their star men in cotton wool, sensibly limiting the amount of rugby played.

The other main argument the union uses to encourage players to stay is, of course, selection. Which brings us back to Zebo. This rugby era is unique in that we’re seeing players in their prime abandoning their national systems for the unprecedented riches presently available in the club game. It’s been happening to the All Blacks for years, where even the pull of the hallowed silver fern has been unable to prevent players leaving for Europe with their best years still ahead of them. Think of Charles Piutau at Ulster as a case in point. It was only a matter of time, therefore, before such commercial realities caught up with Ireland.

And the Irish system is particularly susceptible to losing players like Zebo. A fluent French speaker who has often spoken of a desire to broaden his horizons, it’s no real surprise that the Munster man’s head has been turned. Let’s not forget that modern rugby careers are becoming increasingly short. The sport has never been more arduous and players are only ever an injury away from retirement.

And rugby isn’t like football in the sense that superstar players retire without having to work again. Rare indeed is a professional rugby player whose playing career sets him up for life. In this context, it’s quite understandable, then, that players want to enrich themselves and their families in the short time available to them. Simon Zebo is one of the lucky few who has the perspicacity to understand the need to make hay while the sun shines.

For all that, we know what the trade off is. For Irish internationals, their test careers suffer because of pragmatic if understandable choices. Unlike their predecessors of yesteryear such as Keith Wood and Geordan Murphy, the IRFU’s selection policy is no longer allowing players to have their cake and eat it. Players must decide and the choice is stark: remain in the Irish system or risk never playing for your country again.

And although Zebo is the most high profile casualty of this contentious policy, the ramifications extend way beyond any one player. Schmidt may explain Zebo’s omission in his usual loquacious style, but there’s no mistaking the severity of the message. The line is clear and unambiguous. One that’s sent a shudder through every Irish international who values his test career but may have been pondering a possible move abroad. And that’s how it has to be if the IRFU’s policy is to have any meaning. But hey, no-one ever said life was fair.  In the merciless battle to hold onto its main men, Irish rugby just got real tough.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

File:Simon Zebo 2015 RWC.jpg

By Warwick Gastinger (Rugby World Cup DSCN4917) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Inconsistent Ireland end on a high

The psychology of sport is fascinating. What makes the difference? How did Ireland transform their fortunes from acute disappointment and under-performance last week to yesterday’s acclaimed victory over a much fancied England side? In sport, coaches and players routinely talk about small margins but how can the transformation be so profound? After all, it’s the same group of players. How can we go from being utterly exasperated with our teams to thinking they’re the best thing since sliced bread? And back again! To be a sports fan is to thrust yourself onto a psychological roller-coaster that’s guaranteed to bring extreme thrills; massive highs and lows at the opposite ends of the emotional spectrum.

In elite, professional sport success, it seems, is only partially related to talent. After all, every player on display is supremely skillful and in possession of rare athletic prowess. At the top end, there’s precious little between opposing teams in terms of talent and skill. That’s why professional sportsmen and women are always looking for an edge, a psychological spur that can give them that decisive advantage over their rivals and opponents. More often than not, the difference is mindset. The top two inches. Analysing performances can be infuriating for coaches and supporters alike. Why did Ireland seemingly blow it against Scotland on the opening day but deliver in emphatic fashion yesterday? The team that struggled in Murrayfield was largely comprised of the same players that conquered the mighty All Blacks in November. What gives? If we accept the theory that the difference in performance relates largely to mindset, why do players deliver on some occasions and freeze on others?

The main problem afflicting this talented Ireland squad is an infuriating lack of consistency. Despite the quantum leap in Irish results in the professional era, there remains a tendency to struggle with the weight and burden of expectation. They’re fine when they’re written off and no-one’s expecting anything. It sits well with the Irish psyche. Ireland still struggle, however, with the tag of favouritism and the expectation to deliver. Think about it. What did the win over England have in common with the heroics in Chicago? Both occasions saw the Irish written off prior to the matches, thus liberating Joe Schmidt’s men from the restrictive burden of expectation. Ireland’s best performances still happen in the context of supporter apathy. Ireland struggle when expectations are heightened, a la the alarming under-performance in Edinburgh.

There’s something about the sight of English jerseys that brings out the best in Irish rugby players. In fact, yesterday’s win was the third time in recent memory that Ireland have denied the red rose a Grand Slam in Dublin; standing alongside the glorious wins of 2001 and 2011. I guess the thought of Eddie Jones’s team sealing a Grand Slam and simultaneous world record on Irish soil was too much for Ireland’s players to bear, inspiring them to their best performance of the championship. The home side lorded in the physicality stakes, meeting fire with fire in thwarting one of the best packs in the world. The Irish dominated their opponents with a controlled aggression that forced England onto the back foot for the majority of an enthralling contest. That’s where mindset comes in. That obdurate desire to physically better your opponent and refusal to concede. The “Mongrel Dog”, as they call it in New Zealand.

It happened more by accident than design, but Ireland’s hastily rearranged back row suited this game perfectly. When Jamie Heaslip cried off in the warm-up, his misfortune allowed CJ Stander to make the seamless transition to number eight. More importantly, Heaslip’s injury catapulted Peter O’Mahony into the side and what a commanding performance the Munster flanker delivered. O’Mahony was absolutely fantastic yesterday, covering every blade of grass in a breathtaking and superb man-of-the-match performance. There’s been some debate recently about whether the Cork man should start for Ireland. Surely the argument has been definitely settled. O’Mahony has to start. If there was a singular difference between the sides, it was the Munster blindside.

Johnny Sexton was his usual sublime self, exhibiting that unique mix of bravery and class. Robbie Henshaw was also outstanding, proving once again that he’s become a genuine leader. It’ll be a travesty if the Athlone man is omitted from Warren Gatland’s Lions’ squad. A special mention must also go to Kieran Marmion. Many feared the worst when Conor Murray pulled out during the week but the talented Marmion proved resoundingly that he belongs in this exalted company. Most satisfying of all, though, was the crucial contribution of Ireland’s inexperienced players. Dan Leavy, Andrew Conway and Luke McGrath stepped into the Six Nations cauldron and every one of them looked to the manor born. And what about McGrath’s wonderful kick to the corner near the end? Sheer class.

Ireland will look back on their 2017 Six Nations campaign with extreme regret. Yesterday’s win should have delivered the title as well as mere bragging rights. Simple as that. In fact, Schmidt’s men could have fallen short against Wales and still been in championship contention if they hadn’t flopped so badly against an improving but inferior Scottish side. Whatever about Eddie Jones’s team, no-one can deny that they’ve been fantastically consistent in the last eighteen months. A consistency that’s steadfastly eluded the men in green. Yesterday’s win was satisfying and cathartic on several levels but Ireland will only reach their true potential when they get back to delivering when it really matters. Champion teams don’t crumble under the weight of expectation. Rather they embrace it. Great squads produce the goods when they’re expected to and deliver optimum performance on a regular basis. Ireland have finished the Six Nations superbly but we know they’re capable of so much more. Once Ireland regain consistency in their game, they’ll be an extremely formidable force.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

 

File:The fabulous Aviva Stadium.jpg

Image courtesy of Wikipedia: By Reggie Suplido from USA (The fabulous Aviva Stadium) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Crunch Time for Ireland

In the world of rugby writing, there are certain rules and conventions. Most of these are unwritten; some are relatively modern in conception, but all hold true nonetheless. Sort of unspoken rules of engagement, if you like. Riddled with cliche. For example, in modern rugby vernacular, a coaching and management team is universally known as a “brains trust.” I don’t know why. It just is. Sounds good, you see. Fancy. Sophisticated. Similarly, a good old-fashioned clearance kick must now be termed an “exit strategy.” Modern rugby terminology demands it. A Six Nations match involving France, moreover, is invariably referred to as “Le Crunch”. See what I did there? In Anglo-French games, the use of this term is compulsory. Mandatory in previews and sports commentaries. For Ireland-France games, however, use is is optional. Still, you can bet your bottom Euro (I so wanted to say Franc there), that a legion of headline writers will use the hackneyed phrase before the week is out.

Ireland are playing France on Saturday, you see. With both sides having tasted defeat in the championship, the encounter has all the ingredients of a “must win.” While home advantage might prove decisive for Joe Schmidt’s men, you can never rest easy against the elusive, unpredictable French. France. How to make sense of France? Mercurial. Another word synonymous with French rugby and beloved of sportswriters. It’s bound to get several mentions this week, too! Everyone loves French flair, after all. Except France haven’t been so much with the flair in recent years. French sides of recent vintage have abandoned the traditional French modus operandi in favour of a decidedly more structured and formulaic approach. With rather mixed success, it has to be said. Guy Noves’s men haven’t been genuine contenders for quite a while and their fall from grace is a sad sight for those of us raised on the genius of Philippe Sella, Serge Blanco and the rest. France of 2017 have a mammoth pack at their disposal, but not a huge amount else in terms of attacking fluency.

The imminent return of Johnny Sexton after a frustrating spell on the sidelines will bolster an Irish side that’s lacked his direction and guidance in recent games. Paddy Jackson has done a more than creditable job in his absence, but the Leinster man is the best player in the world in his position; the best fly-half we’ve ever had-sorry ROG! Andrew Trimble may also return to the Irish ranks to further strengthen Schmidt’s hand and the Ulster man’s robustness will add extra defensive ballast against the ultra-physical French. If the game is as close as many are expecting, having such experienced and accomplished campaigners on board can only improve Ireland’s chances. It’ll be interesting to see also if Schmidt mixes up his pack for the merciless attrition that’s undoubtedly coming Ireland’s way.

For all the talk of the grand finale against Eddie Jones’s England on 18 March, the men in green have two extremely challenging encounters to negotiate first. Even if France are emphatically dismissed this weekend, a chastened and dangerous Wales lie in wait in two weeks time. To say that these two matches will go some way to defining Ireland’s 2017 Six Nations campaign would be an understatement of epic proportions. The Scottish performance was undoubtedly a massive blot on Ireland’s copybook, but Schmidt’s men are an infinitely better side than that underwhelming display suggested. It’s also wrong to read too much into the facile win over an extremely limited Italy side, but there was enough in Ireland’s performance in Rome to confirm that their Scottish blip was indeed an aberration. Sterner tests await. The first of these arrives on Saturday. There is no room for error. Lose and Ireland’s championship is effectively over. Win well; followed up with a victory in Cardiff, and the dream decider beckons. It’s time to deliver. Allez Les Verts!! 

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

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