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Wednesday 13 December 2017

We must hurt them early

Kearney calls on Ireland to hassle Les Bleus from start and seal rare Paris triumph

Ireland full-back Rob Kearney looks and sounds very much like the Rob Kearney of 2009, the British & Irish Lions' world-beater, the man who triggered a change of mindset in Enfield before the glorious run to the Grand Slam.

There is a leadership quality to his words and his way that oozes confidence and all the comfort of the couch at home in the Cooley Peninsula from where he watched Ireland last beat France in Paris, a week before his 14th birthday.

Since then, he has climbed all the way to the summit of the game, only temporarily unseated by the dread of injury which is the fate of every professional rugby player.

Thankfully, Kearney (groin), Cian Healy (jaw), Sean O'Brien (ankle) and Gordon D'Arcy (shoulder and foot) have all been declared likely to start at the Stade de France on Sunday.

Kearney wasn't about to pretend all is right with the world because Italy were hit for five tries. France will offer more, so much more.

Ireland's defence will have to be fast where it was slow against Wales; hard where it was soft. It was better against the Italians, wasn't it?

"It had to be. It couldn't really go in any other direction. We worked really hard on it the week after Wales because, ultimately, we knew that is why we lost the game," he said.

"It is something you wouldn't associate with this team. We hate to be associated as a team who defends soft and lets teams come to us rather than take their space.

"There was a huge improvement. Again, it must be picked up this week because, of all the teams in the Six Nations, they are the one team you can't give space to. We need to be up in their faces and limit the amount of space we give them."

And they need to do it early, very early.

"We travel over to France and we look at the record. It doesn't fill you with a huge amount of confidence," he added. "Where we always fall down against France is that we have a really poor start, give them a 15-point lead 20-30 minutes into the game.

Calibre

"When you're playing a team to the calibre of France, you can't do that and be expected to win. It is hugely important not to give them that start."

The half-backs have a responsibility, too, to make their box kicks, garryowens, diagonal balls and chip-over-the-tops retrievable for the Irish players.

"Our kicking needs to be better than it was last week. We need to make them a lot more contestable, not give them free, easy balls to play with," said Kearney.

If Ireland can stay close, frustrate France and build their patterns into the game, an element of doubt might just creep into Philippe Saint-Andre's charges.

"If we are there or thereabouts with 20 minutes to go, I think we will be in a really good place because the French, at times, have a tendency to start dipping. We just need to limit our errors and not give away soft tries, sort of, what we've usually done in Paris."

The French defence is closer to a wait-and-see system than the blitz favoured by other international sides. It gives Ireland more time on the ball and France most time to do something about it.

"Moving the ball laterally isn't always the best thing because they are very good at shepherding you across the field," added the Louth man.

"All of a sudden you are at the other side of the field and you've only made 10m. It is really important that we're direct against them. It is trying to find the balance between the two.

"When you are not playing against a rush defence, you do have more time on the ball and a little bit more space to work with.

"But, the whole idea of earning the right to go around them is important. You do need to take the space off them first."

ROB KEARNEY ON . . .

MAXIME MEDARD v CLEMENT POITRENAUD:

France full-back Maxime Medard has been ruled out with a knee injury. His Toulouse club-mate, Clement Poitrenaud, looks like the only reasonable option.

"In some regards, you can argue Poitrenaud isn't weakening their team at all. He is one of the finest full-backs around, a player I would certainly admire and try to learn things off.

"Poitrenaud has a good three or four inches on Medard and, when he is on his day, he can pluck them pretty well. Offensively, there's a few differences between the two of them."

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