No-one was especially happy with the original meeting of France and Ireland in Paris being cancelled at the last minute. It left a lot of Irish fans out of pocket and left a taste in the mouth more bitter than Lidl’s €2.99 chardonnay. Sadly, as they avoided a complete ass-whupping, it has to go down as one of the best outcomes Ireland have come away from Paris with.
Ireland have been almost uniformly terrible in Paris over the years. Overall, they’ve won 22% of their games away to France and the worrying thing is that figure is padded out by several years of when Les Bleus were the newbie whipping boys of the Five Nations in the 1910s and 20s and Ireland racked up 8 wins in 12 away games at the beginning of the rivalry. Sadly that period of dominance was so long ago not even George Hook can remember it and the scrum has well and truly turned since.
Unless it’s a reflection of your chances of being spear-tackled by a Welshman, 22% is never something to be happy about, but in comparison to more recent times, it counts as halcyon days for the Irish. Since 1970, Ireland have amassed a record of two wins and 21 defeats away to the French and fans of percentages will know that translates into winning less than 9% of the time.
But why are Ireland so poor when it comes to playing France away from home? Do the sights and sounds of the city mean they’re not focussed at the task at hand? Are they not comfortable in a country where grown men openly kiss other grown men? Here’s a look at some of the possible explanations.
The ever growing monkey on the back
Ireland clearly have a gigantic, poo-flinging monkey on their backs about winning in Paris. Captain, Paul O’Connell summed up the Irish attitude to Paris in the build-up to the first attempt at getting the game played. “It’s frustrating that I haven’t beaten France in Paris, but we have a team that can do it,” he said in comments that both suggested self-belief and showed he and no doubt his team-mates are conscious of the drought. It has to have some effect on performance. Every defeat has added to the mountain of self-doubt and it’s hard to snap out of that cycle.
On the rare occasions when there was a brief opportunity to break the subjugation and establish a new pattern and mentality when it came to taking on the French, the chance was missed and in some style. The aftermath of the the remarkable victory in 2000 when Brian O’Driscoll scored a hat-trick being the case and point. The next three times Ireland visited Paris in 2002, 2004 and 2006, their hosts racked up 44, 35 and 43 points respectively, with the eventual margin of 12 points in the latter encounter being the closest Ireland got over the series of matches. (And it’s probably worth noting, France obliterated Ireland in the first half of that match by a scoreline of 29-3 before an Irish comeback made things more respectable).
Throughout the 70s the margins of defeat were agonisingly slim, but again the team failed to capitalise on the win of 1972 and the aura around winning in Paris grew like a schools player mainlining creatine. There will be a point in the future when Ireland get a couple of back to back wins in Paris and suddenly the veneer of French invincibility will collapse. That might not be this year though.
For much of the last forty years, the French have had better players at their disposal, but there have been a couple of times when their Irish opponents compared rather favourably to them. The 70s and 00s are examples of periods when Ireland were comparatively strong, yet each of the generations managed just a solitary victory in each era. The vintage of the late 70s and early 80s weren’t exactly a bunch of duds either, but they had to make do with a couple of near-misses and a few not completely disheartening defeats from their ventures to Parc de Princes. The late 80s and much of the 90s weren’t good, but it felt more like Golden Girls than golden generation so there was less of a feeling of missed opportunity. The Stade de France years are arguably more frustrating than setting a scrum in the modern game. The performances of the Irish provinces in the Heineken Cup against French opposition have indicated any gap in class has closed and may in fact be non-existent, but the return for the national team hasn’t improved.
Related to the strength in depth of the France squad is the notion of their unpredictability. They’ve got enough talent to execute whatever game-plan they see fit at any given time. Sometimes they’ll bash you up front and keep things tight whilst at other times they’ll throw the ball around with abandon and take advantage of your weary legs. It’s hard to play against because it tests your entire team plus what you have on the bench. With England, Scotland, Italy and to a lesser extent Wales, it’s largely the same style year on year whilst the French seem to have more peaks, troughs and moments when you have no idea what to expect than anyone else.
So far under Phillipe Saint-Andre, they’ve been using a rugby version of Ali’s ‘rope a dope’ tactics. Against Italy and Scotland, they absorbed a lot of pressure before striking with stinging counter-attacks when the chances came. It’s a step-back from traditional French flamboyance, but you know the flair isn’t too far away and have to defend accordingly. The new French approach might suit Ireland on this occasion. They’re far better equipped in an attacking sense to trouble Les Bleus than Italy and Scotland and both of the minnows caused plenty of trouble before the French pulled clear.
Ireland do have a chance of winning in Paris, but at the risk of sounding like a quasi-inspirational power ballad, they need to believe in themselves. Man for man, they’re not far off the required standard, but as the record suggests, they take a lot of baggage to Paris. Not for the first time.