Ireland seek perfect send-off for O’Driscoll as championship goes down to the wire
Much depends on winning margins in three-way tug-of-war between Joe Schmidt’s side, England and France
One of the recurring touchstones of this season’s Six Nations tournament has been the imminent retirement of Ireland’s Brian O’Driscoll. But rather than give way to nostalgia, the 35-year-old’s farewell tour has turned out to be far more purposeful as the Irish travel to Paris on Saturday tied at the top of the standings with both France and England.
Sealing the Six Nations title with only their second win over France in Paris in 42 years would be a fitting send-off indeed for O’Driscoll. The Irish have a far superior points difference to the other two, although the English have a chance of eating into that as they play Italy, who are bottom, in Rome, in the earlier game.
O’Driscoll, who will bow out with a world record 141 caps (including eight for the British & Irish Lions), will have struck fear into the French after his scintillating display in the crushing 46-7 win over Italy last Saturday, creating three tries.
The centre, who has scored 47 Test tries, believes it is unlikely he can repeat the feat he achieved as a 21-year-old at the same Stade de France ground in 2000 and score a hat-trick in Ireland’s only win in Paris since 1972. However, he is confident he and his team-mates can end a run of two successive draws between the two teams and triumph.
“I feel we have the capabilities now of winning in Paris of course, more so now than other times we’ve gone over there,” said O’Driscoll.
“But I realise how tough a challenge it is – we’ve won once there in 42 years, it’s one win and one draw. We realise the size of the challenge, but we feel when we go well we’re difficult to contain, so we have to get ourselves up for one massive performance.”
Coach Joe Schmidt, whose side have conceded just two tries, is worried by the toll the campaign has taken on some of his players, especially the centre pairing of O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy. As a result, he has drafted utility back Ian Madigan onto the replacements bench and left out fly-half Paddy Jackson.
“It’s been a pretty combative campaign – we just started to creak a little bit, so we just needed the coverage,” said the 48-year-old New Zealander, who has revived Irish fortunes since he replaced Declan Kidney after last year’s abysmal Six Nations campaign.
“In England we got a couple of niggles, and we didn’t have as broad a coverage on the bench as we would have liked. Ian is a very good player and he does give us coverage through the midfield and at full-back.”
If the Irish have revelled in positive headlines, exactly the opposite has been the case for the French camp. Having been criticised last year for their results – they won two and lost eight of their 11 tests, with one draw – now they are being lambasted for their performances even when they win.
France head coach Philippe Saint-Andre, who looks unlikely to emulate previous French sides who either won the Grand Slam (2002 and 2010) or the title (2006) the year before the three previous World Cups, said the critics were wrong.
“If I have to be the scapegoat, then no problem. But let the players do their work,” he said, before reminding everyone that he does not have a full-strength side to pick from.
“When you realise how many important players are out injured, there are six, seven, eight – and yet we still see this group improving, picking themselves up and still being in a position to win the Six Nations. We’re still dreaming about winning, about scoring 15 tries and that everyone’s in a dream.
“But seriously, we’re doing a lot better than last year at this point. Then we had three defeats and a draw, now we have three wins.”
Meanwhile, England captain Chris Robshaw says his team are entirely focussed on simply beating Italy – rather than hoping to rack up a cricket score in their quest for the title.
England have a +29 points difference advantage over the French, but trail Ireland by +49. Realistically, then, they need to record an almost record score to win the championship, should Ireland later win.
Their biggest winning margin against Italy is 60 points in a 67-7 success at Twickenham during the 1999 World Cup. But for Robshaw, piling on the points is a thing of fairytales and just winning at the Stadio Olimpico will be tough enough.
The last two encounters between the sides saw England sneak through by narrow margins, 19-15 in Rome two years ago and 18-11 at Twickenham last year.
“If there is a perception that we should win this game comfortably, that exists totally outside our camp,” Robshaw said. “Our perception inside the camp is it’s going to be a very tough game.
“Look at the England performances and scorelines the last few times we’ve played Italy – a narrow win over there in the snow two years ago and it was only seven at Twickenham last year when they cut us open for a try and we didn’t score any.
“Whether it’s a concentration thing or the mental side of the game, we’ve sometimes been flat against Italy and when you compare them now with when they came into the Six Nations in 2000 they are an outstanding unit.”
Head coach Stuart Lancaster named an unchanged side from the one that beat Wales 29-18 at Twickenham last weekend, while Jacques Brunel has made only three changes to the side that started in Italy’s crushing 47-7 defeat to Ireland in Dublin. Crucially, however, he has been able to welcome back captain Sergio Parisse.
Italy’s ambitions are very different to England’s as they look to avoid a first wooden spoon since 2011.
A win in Rome, coupled with a Wales victory over Scotland in Cardiff would do the trick, as long as there is a 25-point swing in Italy’s favour over the Scots.
For Brunel, though, any win would at least salvage something from an otherwise disappointing campaign, particularly given they finished fourth last year after beating France and Ireland at home.
“At the start of the tournament we set ourselves the objective of winning two games,” said Brunel. “But the result from and the performance against Scotland [a 21-20 home defeat] was a blow and left us feeling disillusioned.
“If we beat England, then we could say ‘it’s a pity because we came close against Scotland and we had a good game against the Welsh’, and so it would shed a more positive light on our campaign. But if we suffer a heavy defeat on Saturday, then it will be a different appraisal altogether.”