When looking at Ireland’s fixtures for this year’s Six Nations Championship, the clash with Wales in Dublin was always going to be pivotal.
With a trip to Paris coming just six days later and history completely stacked against us over there, a win was badly needed by Declan Kidney’s men to have any kind of momentum going into the Stade de France. You probably don’t need me to tell you how that went!
Yet the next match still must be played, and preparations must be made. If Paul O’Connell leads the boys out with a mentality that they’re destined to lose, that is exactly what is going to happen.
Now if it’s change we’re looking for, we got very little of it from the team selection. Bringing Keith Earls back to outside centre, moving Fergus McFadden to the bench and allowing Dave Kearney return to play for Leinster wasn’t so much a change as a returning of the team to how Kidney seems to want it for this championship.
So it surely must be in the approach to Saturday night’s fixture where the coaching staff will be looking to do things differently. How exactly can they do this?
Well, first of all, they must learn lessons from what the Welsh did to them in Dublin. From our very first piece of decent possession it was clear the visitors had a plan to knock them off their game, and for the most part, it worked.
At the breakdown, for example, when the ball was presented and Ireland chose a “two pods of four” option in the forwards, the Welsh were fast at committing bodies to drive through the gate giving Conor Murray little or no time to get the ball away. Though the young Munster scrum-half has many strengths, quick distribution isn’t generally one of them at the best of times.
So basically, Ireland needs to be smarter with their options. Of course it wasn’t all bad and the two tries they got courtesy of Rory Best and Tommy Bowe were well worked, and they will need to be just as clinical when attacking opportunities present themselves on Saturday.
But seeing as how they have gone with Sexton yet again as out-half, he definitely needs to be allowed to orchestrate his game much as he does with Leinster. Last time out he seemed too eager to kick possession back to the opposition, and while his Garryowen’s can be accurate, the Welsh backs were strong enough to return them with interest and I doubt the likes of Rougerie, Medard & Malzieu will be any different.
As for the forwards, although the French have made changes to their pack they involve the inclusion of names like Harinordoquy so Ireland will definitely need every ounce of their experience. It is vital that our back row are able to stand up and compete and in terms of quality they really should have nothing to fear by their opposition – the key is that they get into enough attacking situations on the front foot to make that quality count.
Finally, and possibly most crucially, we have our defence. The much-lauded “choke tackle” has proven a powerful weapon with this squad and as we all know played a huge role in bringing home memorable victories like that against the Wallabies.
But they must also remember that their opposition is studying DVDs of them every week and watching the Welsh march from their 22 to the Irish one with relative ease at such a crucial stage of the match leads me to believe this defensive strategy needs to be far more flexible than it is.
So in formulating my prediction for Saturday evening, I have to ask myself…can Ireland make the necessary game plan alterations to succeed? I’ll tell you – I’ll support my country through thick and thin and I’ll show faith in them whenever I can, but I have to say…after what I saw last weekend, I have to say no. And it’s nothing to do with how results have gone before in Paris either – I’m making my judgement based on the here and now.
I feel the French will take an early unassailable lead and perhaps in the second half we will be able to dig deep enough to get some scores to keep the scoreline somewhat respectable, perhaps even getting the losing margin down to single digits. Let’s hope the boys in green have me eating humble pie by Sunday morning!
Elsewhere this weekend, I’m intrigued by the Italy v England match in Rome. I have a feeling that Sergio Parisse will have his team really fired up for this one. True, they didn’t show much in Paris, nor did they offer much against Ireland down in Dunedin. But this is on their patch, and they have to have seen in the way the English played at Murrayfield that they have a shot at an upset.
Now I’m not saying Stuart Lancaster’s men got nothing right last weekend because their defence was solid but if the Italians can get an edge on territory there’s no reason they can’t put points on the board. I’m going to climb out on a limb big-time and go for a narrow Italian victory this weekend. It only needs to be by the one point, just ask the French.
As for Cardiff on Sunday, I see nothing but a triumphant return home for Warren Gatland’s men. The disappointment in the Scottish camp must be immense and the shock midweek retirement of Dan Parks cannot have helped – Coach Robinson will really have his work cut out to lift them going into the Millennium Stadium and though in players like Denton and Gray they have hope for the future I see them falling short possible by two tries or more.
So that’s how I see it – two blues and a red for victory in round two. Then Ireland will have a week off to prepare for a pair of “easy” home games with Scotland and Italy before the dream St Patrick’s Day finale at Twickenham.
Wherever you are this Saturday evening, enjoy watching the boys try and prove me wrong in Paris. I’ll be back here next week to preview the provinces as the RaboDirectPRO12 returns to centre stage. JLP
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