NOT quite springtime in Paris yet but I can assure you that the temperatures will certainly be raised on Saturday when Ireland emerge from the dressing room and take to the hallowed surface of Stade de France.
It’s hard not to get excited about this Irish squad. However, Irish rugby has been at this level of exhilaration before; it didn’t exactly end as the fairytale was scripted.
When you look at the quality and depth of the players that Andy Farrell and his fellow coaches have at their disposal, it’s hard not to look beyond the Six Nations and on to the 2023 World Cup.
Ireland’s first game at the main event will be on September 9, 2023, and it is so important that they start the preparations for this tournament now and not wait until next year. As sure as night follows day South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, France, and England have their groundwork signed off and everything is gearing around gaining ownership of the William Webb Ellis trophy.
It’s worth reminding folk that Ireland have never found themselves beyond the quarter-final stages of the World Cup and when you consider we were ranked number one in the world before the last tournament, it just goes to show that timing is everything and previous results are only good for wrapping fish and chips.
We have now beaten the All Blacks on three out of the last four attempts, toyed with teams like Japan and Argentina and to make matters even better the brand of rugby that we are playing is only improving.
Long gone is the predictable style that Joe Schmidt imposed upon his players. In its place is a quick, varied, and somewhat off-the-cuff variety of rugby, where players like Jamison Gibson Park, Gary Ringrose, Hugo Keenan, and the entire Irish backrow are relishing the freedom to express themselves.
For as long as I’ve been watching Irish rugby, I can’t recall front-rowers throwing skip passes, second rows positioning themselves on the wings, and scrum-halves passing without looking but knowing there will always be someone there to receive the ball.
Most surprising of all is that all the backs are willing to hit rucks and be effective when doing so.
Ronan O’Gara was never afraid to put his body on the line, but the sight of him trying to clear a 20 stone prop at a ruck would remind you of the English backs in the 1995 World Cup trying to tackle Jonah Lomu.
In all areas of the field, Ireland now have quality pushing quality and in an environment like this it breathes a type of excellence that is normally only visible within the New Zealand stables.
Question marks are still hanging over the head of Johnny Sexton’s longevity; going on current fitness levels and form, you would be foolish to think his retirement is imminent. Unfortunately, a hamstring injury rules him out this weekend, with Joey Carbery stepping in. But he remains the main man at number 10.
Last week both Ireland and France underperformed considering the opposition that they were up against, but they both managed to win their respective ties by a very comfortable margin.
Wales were understrength, lacked any kind of a game plan, and their discipline was appalling.
Italy, on the other hand, were their normal selves. Bursting full of pride and vigour they lacked any kind of method to their madness. Again.
It’s seven years now since the Azzuri won a game in the Six Nations and their continued participation is not doing them, the reputation of the competition, or the other teams any good.
A relegation system would be the key to fixing this issue, but that’s not our problem, that’s one for the blazers to sort out.
The only thing that matters now for Ireland is coming to terms with the realisation that the French team they will lock horns with tomorrow will offer them a test five times greater than the one they faced from Wales last week.
First of all, and despite their fiery DNA, the French will be far more disciplined than the Welsh and if Ireland are afforded field position in the hosts’ scoring zone, they must leave with something tangible on the scoreboard because opportunities will be few and far between.
Secondly, the threat presented by playmakers Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack must be nullified before it even begins and for this to happen the Irish backrowers must be prepared to live on the edge for the entire game. If it means taking a few yellow cards, I’d be happy with that, but what they simply cannot do is allow this duo a free hand to do what they want.
As a double act they have the ability to cut any team to shreds.
If Ireland can slow down the delivery of ball to the French captain Dupont, the French speedsters, like last week’s three-try hero Gabin Villiere, will have less time to identify the exploitable holes. As we have seen in Ireland’s last four games, their defence has afforded them priceless turnovers and disrupted any hope of the opposition building multiple phases.
Looking at all the opening round games, I think the winners of this year’s competition will emerge from this game, and I really believe that Ireland have all the tools they require to complete the job.
The one thing that they cannot do is return to a safe and unadventurous blueprint because if they do, it will feel like one step forward and ten steps back.