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

 

 

 

 

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Chastened Ireland Taught Important Lesson!

Chastened Ireland Taught Important Lesson!

How do we assess Irish rugby after the opening weekend of the Six Nations Championship and the emphatic defeat inflicted by a reborn and resurgent England. Are Ireland just not as good as we thought they were? Have we all got a little carried away by recent achievements? Have Irish rugby folk completely lost the run of themselves? Have our collective delusions of grandeur been ruthlessly exposed a few months out from the biggest show of them all? Does Joe Schmidt and his squad need to go back to the drawing board? Actually, none of the above!

Ireland lost on Saturday to a pumped up England, by far the better team on the day. It’s rugby. It’s sport. It happens. Granted, we Irish tend to be tad myopic about our sports teams, but this Irish side is the real deal. Its imperious record over the past year tells you just how darn good it is.

More interesting are the reasons behind England’s triumph. Eddie Jones’s men smashed Ireland several yards behind the gain line, continually thwarting Ireland’s bid for momentum. Schmidt’s multi-phase game plan is based on superiority in the contact areas and England bossed that aspect of the game comprehensively at the weekend. It’s hard to implement any sort of attacking strategy when you’re lagging so thoroughly in the physicality stakes.

Think of any of the big signature defeats of the Schmidt era: Argentina in the World Cup, New Zealand at home in 2016, the Six Nations reversals suffered against Gatland’s Wales. They all have one thing in common. Ireland came second best in the contact areas. Schmidt’s precision strategy is predicated on winning the collisions and this is a severe problem. England were truly immense in their physical prowess at the weekend.

Actually, I thought Ireland recovered quite well from England’s stratospheric start (inevitable as it was given last year’s events in Twickenham). When Cian Healy drove over for his deserved try, Ireland had seemingly withstood the early onslaught and wrested parity from the visitors. But it was Jones’s men who raised their game thereafter. And Ireland had no answer.

Each and every time Schmidt’s side took the ball forward, they were smashed back behind the gain line by a dominant and painfully  aggressive defensive unit. Sure, England flirted at times with illegality, but you could only admire the sheer doggedness and commitment of their efforts.

We certainly didn’t see this coming after November’s dizzy heroics. So, how do we explain the turnaround in fortunes? England were just class, we have to acknowledge that first and foremost. They are an immeasurably better team with the awesome Billy Vunipola leading from the front. And Owen Farrell is at last fulfilling his promise as one of the true modern greats of the game. He was simply mesmeric at the weekend. This was always a difficult assignment first up in the championship: a really strong England hell bent on revenge, equipped with a smart game plan and a massive team armed to implement it to near perfection. Fair play to them.

But Ireland haven’t suddenly become a bad team. Common sense tells us that. I’ve heard it postulated in the last few days that Ireland just can’t hack it in the physicality department against the really big sides, but I’m not buying that. Any team that can dominate New Zealand like Ireland did in the autumn has no such worries. They just lost to a bloody good team, fired up with fury and virtually at full strength. Such is life.

The English reverse is also a reflection of Ireland’s newly found, exalted status as one of the game’s leaders. It’s always easier chasing the pack than sitting with a large target on your back, waiting to be knocked off your lofty perch. But hey, that’s the price of success. Better to find out now than in Japan. There’s no reason to panic, though. Ireland must (and will) get better.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

A Shot at Greatness

It couldn’t be scripted better. Not even if Steven Spielberg had conceived it. With the Six Nations Championship securely in the bag, Joe Schmidt’s men now have a chance to land the biggest prize of all: the holy of holies, the elusive and much coveted Grand Slam. That the chance comes on St Patrick’s Day at Twickenham adds an ultimate layer of sweetness to an already appetising dish. It truly doesn’t get any bigger than this. History beckons for relentless Ireland.

It’s almost as if we’re rapacious. In the ordinary scheme of things, the Six Nations trophy does very nicely thank you. Ireland’s championship win is certainly no mean achievement and Joe Schmidt’s squad is rightly proud of its progress to date. But there’s room for more. We know that. The players know that. The moment is nigh. Saturday March 17, 2018 is the time to deliver. During this unusual championship campaign it’s felt like the men in green have been playing within themselves; that although Irish performances have been remorselessly functional, there’s another gear still to be found. Another level.

Chances like this don’t come around too often. It’s nine years since an Irish team last attempted this feat and it seems a veritable lifetime. Not just the game, but the world itself has changed utterly in the intervening years. At the time, we hoped it would be the start of something special; that days like this would become a regular occurrence. What we were, in fact, witnessing was the end of a golden generation but not before it had permanently cemented its place in rugby folklore. You see, that’s the uncomfortable truth. Grand Slam chances are seldom. As rare as hen’s teeth. There’s a reason we’ve only won two in our long history.

Therefore, the moment must be seized. But how mammoth a task. Ireland’s mission isn’t just challenging, it’s onerous and monumentally troublesome. Yes, Ireland have comfortably been the best team in the 2018 Six Nations by a country mile and, although still searching for peak form, Schmidt’s side has played the best rugby so far. The table doesn’t lie, after all. While form and performance undoubtedly favour the Irish, Twickenham is a venue like no other. Ireland’s London record has often made for grim reading but recent events underpin the enormity of the task. Eddie Jones’s boys haven’t lost at English rugby HQ since 2015. As fortresses go, that’s pretty impregnable credentials.

And yet Ireland provide much hope. The Green Machine has been relentless and clinical this year and has battered every opponent into seemingly inevitable submission. Jacob Stockdale is a revelation on the wing and scores tries with the careless abandon of a kid playing footy in the back garden. However, the 2018 vintage has class all over the park. Keith Earls is reborn on the other wing, James Ryan a revelation and Bundee Aki looks to the manor born in the centre. In the final analysis, the class of 2018 may lack the overall quality of their 2009 equivalents, but in terms of work ethic, battle hardness and composure, Schmidt’s charges look superior.

It barely needs reiteration, but if Ireland prevail, they will have Johnny Sexton to thank above all. Sexton is the real deal: Ireland’s best player, most valuable commodity and the man opponents fear most. In the inexorable Irish march to glory, it’s easy to forget they wouldn’t have got anywhere near this finale without the Irish fly-half’s Parisian masterclass.

A Grand Slam victory would be the ultimate vindication and fitting reward for one of Ireland’s greatest ever footballers. ’09’s Slam provided a deserved and tangible accolade for Ireland’s best ever player; ensuring a peerless career wouldn’t be tarnished by the ugly spectre of underachievement. Make no mistake, Sexton is as important now as O’Driscoll was then. If anyone can drag us over the line through sheer force of will, it’s definitely Sexton.

Saturday is a massive occasion. It’s sure to be tense, dramatic, breathtaking and spellbinding. The ambitious Irish taking on a chastened and smarting England in their own back yard; with the cherished Slam on the line. This is massive. As big as it gets. Do or die. There’s something magical about St Patrick’s week. No doubt, this time of year evokes something inside Irish people. Look at the invading hordes that descend on Cheltenham every year chasing their own pot of gold.

But it will take more than magic to upset a provoked and wounded England on home turf. Jones’s men may be vulnerable but still hold so much in their favour. For all that, potential Irish Slams don’t come around often and Schmidt’s boys must make hay while the sun shines. They’ll have to do it the hard way but that’s the way it goes sometimes. This is Ireland’s shot at greatness. The visitors by a whisker!

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

Listen to the insideireland.ie rugby union podcast on SoundCloud. 

 

 

 

 

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;

Follow the Insideireland.ie rugby podcast on Soundcloud! 

Slick Ireland ready to roll

It’s that time of year again. You know the time I mean: when beer gardens are filled to capacity and every armchair rugby fan this side of the equator becomes experts in elite sports performance. Yes, it can only be the annual extravaganza that is the Six Nations Championship. Excitement, tension and apprehension filling the spring air in equal measure.

For Ireland, the 2018 tournament provides an opportunity to capitalise on autumn success and lay down a marker for the rest of the rugby world to notice. Entering, as we are, the end of the median stage of the World Cup cycle, this is a particularly pivotal point in the development of Joe Schmidt’s ambitious side. As satisfying at it is to challenge glamorous rivals from the southern hemisphere, the Six Nations is-and will always be-the bread and butter for tier one European nations. And the fans love this grand old tournament above all else, of course.

And, increasingly, the Six Nations is where it’s at. The peerless All Blacks apart, the best sides in the world hail from Europe these days. With the grim malaise currently afflicting Australian and South African rugby, European nations provide the best hope of upsetting New Zealand in 2019.

Eddie Jones’s England, for example, have been on a truly inspiring run for the last couple of years; their only defeat coming against Ireland in the finale of the 2017 tournament. Jones’s juggernaut is as relentless as it is powerful. Schmidt’s Ireland aren’t too far behind, though, and we all know the capabilities of Warren Gatland’s Wales. That’s before we even mention the awesome renaissance happening in Scotland and the credible job Conor O’Shea is doing in Italy.

European rugby, then, is in as strong as a position as it’s been in several blue moons. Ireland, for their part, seem in rude health. Injuries (touching a large piece of wood here!) have been relatively kind to date. The only notable absentees are Sean O’Brien and Garry Ringrose and both hope to be involved before the tournament concludes.

Even long term injuries to Jamie Heaslip and Jared Payne are mitigated by the fact that they play in positions where Ireland enjoy comparative strength. As ever, all eyes will be on the indispensable Johnny Sexton. Ireland’s brilliant fly-half really is integral to everything his side does. If Sexton stays fit, Ireland have an excellent chance of accruing silverware. If Leinster’s talisman goes down, on the other hand, all bets are off. It really is as simple as that.

The fixture list, moreover, has fallen quite kindly. If the opening game away to France can be safely negotiated, three home fixtures beckon against our Celtic cousins and Italy; all leading to a mouth watering final day showdown against England in Twickenham.

First thing’s first, though. The always enigmatic French come into the Six Nations in a state of slight disarray, having dispensed with coach, Guy Noves and replaced him with former Italy boss, Jacques Brunel. Sweeping personnel changes, illness and an inexperienced coaching team for the home side all points towards an Irish victory in the opening fixture.

But we know that logic counts for little when playing the French. With Ireland’s appalling Parisian record to consider (Google it if you want to upset yourself), Irish fans never feel too optimistic approaching an away day in Paris. That said, this is a good time to run into the unsettled French. And given how poorly Schmidt’s men started the Six Nations last season, the Irish coach will undoubtedly prime his side to get out of the blocks sprinting. The Six Nations is, after all, about momentum and a good start will do wonders for Irish prospects. Win well against France and slick Ireland have the tools to build championship glory.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

You can also follow the InsideIreland.ie rugby podcast on Soundcloud. 

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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