by Frank Schnittger
Fri Feb 12th, 2010 at 10:49:32 AM EST
Mathieu Bastareaud scoring one of his two tries against Scotland.
I know ET isn't a hotbed of sporting fanatics and rugby isn't everyone's cup of tea, but I feel the urge to write my annual diary on rugby as the 6 Nations tournament hots up with Le Crunch meeting of favourites France and the Grand Slam Champions Ireland tomorrow. Irish Rugby is on a high at the moment, with Irish teams winning the 6 Nations, Heinekin Cup, Magniers League, Churchill Cup and the national team beating the world Champions, South Africa, in an unbeaten season.
However our record in Paris is much less impressive, with only two wins in the past 38 years, the last being in Brian O'Driscoll's famous three try salvo in 2000. Indeed, the confrontation between Brian O'Driscoll and the French 110kg centre Mathieu Bastareaud who scored two tries in France's win against Scotland is but one of many highlights of the match.
The fact that Bastenraud is a nephew of William Gallas, the French soccer international who scored the goal from Thierry Henry's handball which knocked Ireland out of the world Cup in the same Stade de France adds even more interest and spice to the confrontation. Indeed allegations of cheating have been a highlight to the build up to this match as well, with French scrum half Parra accusing the Irish rugby team of being skilled practitioners of the art. Coming from the French this displays remarkable chutzpah!
So who will win?
Ireland has only two teams, Leinster and Munster, in the quarter-finals of the Heinekin cup this year, compared to France's four, so it is possible that home advantage and France's greater strength in depth will carry the day. But the days when Irish teams feared travelling to France are long gone with Munster scoring a famous victory against Perpignan in Perpignan earlier this season. This team have made a habit of breaking psychological barriers, winning Ireland's first Grand Slam in 61 years last year.
In the process Ireland have not really played well, winning many matches by close margins and adopting a very conservative and pragmatic approach. This year the Grand Slam is much harder with away matches in Paris and Twickenham against our two strongest opponents. However there is great optimism in Ireland that this team - a mixture of battle hardened veterans with over 90 caps and exciting young players - can do just that.
Crucially, Ireland will be close to full strength with only Lions wing Luke Fitzgerald and second row Donncha O'Callaghan (and substitutes Geordan Murphy, Denis Leamy, and Andrew Trimble) hors de combat. However hookers Jerry Flannery and Rory Best are both only just back from protracted injuries and have only started 4 matches between them this season. They are hardly likely to be fully match fit and at their best but a lack of top class alternatives has forced the Manager, Declan Kidney, to fast track them back into the team.
In addition John Hayes is now 36 and nearing 100 caps and beginning to show his age. But the manager simply doesn't have a top class alternative tight head prop to put into the team. Stephen Ferris, who had his eyes gouged by two French players in a recent match for Ulster is also only just back to fitness, and again missed training today. So there has to be a question mark as to whether the Irish forward pack will be at their best.
However the Irish view is that if the Irish forwards can achieve anything close to parity with the French eight, then the Irish backs can more than match their opposite numbers and achieve a rare victory on French soil. The Irish mid-field of O'Driscoll and D'Arcy is regarded as more than a match for their opposite numbers, Mathieu Bastareaud and Yannick Jauzion, and unusually the Irish wingers and full back are regarded as at least a match for the traditionally very formidable French back three (where France are missing first choice wingers Rougerie and Fall through injury).
All in all it should be the match of the Championship with the two most skill-full teams at full tilt against each other. Let's hope there isn't any eye gouging or other forms of cheating to spoil the match. Irish commentators have suggested, in jest, that France should have picked Thierry Henry on the wing if he really wants to use his hands!