THERE are times in sport when consideration for one’s physical wellbeing must be put to one side. For the players on the Irish rugby team, that time has arrived.
Last week, Ireland let slip a perfect opportunity to get their Six Nations campaign off to an ideal start. In doing so, they accumulated a pile of unwanted baggage, which, before the game, did not exist.
Social media might have played a big part in Andy Farrell and his players getting lambasted for their loss to the Welsh, but when technology finds more ways of infiltrating our minds, the scrutiny will only get worse for those who live in the public domain.
Players and coaches have a choice in what they read and while some comments border the edge between the senseless and the delusional, everyone is entitled to their opinion, and social media offers everyone the perfect platform to voice that opinion.
Peter O’Mahony and Billy Burns were the ill-fated duo last week. They had to deal with a trailer load of unwanted attention, and I can guarantee you that if Ireland fail again on Sunday, others will find themselves in the same firing line.
Both O’Mahony and Burns must put the weekend behind them and while both incidents were irresponsible and detrimental to Ireland’s prospects in this year’s championship, what’s headline news today will be tomorrow’s fish-and-chip paper.
The only way for a sports-person to silence their critics is by winning, and on Sunday the only way Ireland will win is by fully understanding how French rugby thinks and functions.
If French rugby were a car, it would consist of three entities.
Firstly, it would have an exterior that was designed by Ferrari.
The engine would come from a back-street American muscle-car fanatic, who is not concerned about the clatter from the exhaust, and it would be fuelled by an endless supply of Dom Perignon champagne.
This may seem like a rather extravagant combination, but what it gives you is class, grunt, and explosive power, with a hangover thrown in for good measure.
If the Irish players stand back during this game, they will understand what I mean, but if they ask questions from the start, the vehicle will start to encounter issues and the vulnerability that shrouds French rugby will re-emerge and their engine will spontaneously combust.
Antoine Dupont is the French scrum-half who will be tasked with linking the powerful forwards with their exciting backs and he has rightfully earned an incredible amount of plaudits over the last two seasons.
Unlike some players, who go out of their way to gain media attention, Dupont goes about his business with little fuss or concern.
His demeanour reminds me of how England’s Johnny Wilkinson did all his talking on the pitch. However, Dupont is just one part of a 15-man system and Ireland must not get caught up in all the hype that is surrounding him.
The key to upsetting Dupont’s rhythm will be for the Irish forwards to put a vast amount of pressure on him at the break-down.
Last week, through the insatiable work ethic of Tadhg Beirne, CJ Stander, and Iain Henderson, Ireland turned over 18 balls, which put incredible pressure on Welsh scrum-half, Tomos Williams.
Every time Williams looked to move the ball, he was either thwarted by a pair of Irish hands or he had to go digging and looking for it. He certainly wasn’t allowed an armchair ride, and this is exactly what must happen again on Sunday.
Ireland’s scrum will be fine and their line-out should also function with enough fluidity to give Sexton (if fit) the quality of ball he requires to put his fellow players in advantageous areas of the field.
Sexton, like all great leaders, can get dissatisfied if things don’t go his way and there is no point in expecting him to change now.
If he gets displeased when his high standards are not met, then that’s just part of the Leinster man’s DNA and if that characteristic were not flowing through his veins, he wouldn’t have become the icon he is today. Hopefully, he will have the service of all his players for the duration of this game and he won’t have to go into too many rucks to secure the ball, because hitting rucks is not his job.
Last week, France commenced their campaign with a 50-10 trashing of Italy, but Ireland should not pay too much attention to this.
This was Italy’s 28th consecutive loss in the Six Nations and there really is no place for them in this competition any longer.
Their continued participation is no good for them, as a developing nation, and is devaluing what the tournament is meant to be portraying, which is the best that northern hemisphere rugby can offer.
The sooner that relegation and promotion is introduced into the Six Nations the better the competition will become.
Just imagine if we had teams like Japan, Argentina, or South Africa participating.
I have no doubt that Ireland can overcome this French side on Sunday, but it is imperative that they start well and don’t allow players like Dupon, Gaël Fickou, and Arthur Vincent to build up a head of steam.
I know Ireland have Paul O’Connell in their coaching team now, but if there were ever a time for the late and great Jack Charlton to manifest himself and give these Irish players a bit of advice, this would unquestionably be it.
'Lads, just put 'em under pressure,' he would say.