Two teams that were expected to challenge for the title before the tournament began instead find themselves locked in a struggle to avoid the wooden spoon. It has been 15 years since Ireland finished bottom of the table, but that is the fate that may await them in Rome next weekend if they fail to topple winless France.
History is stacked against them, though, as they have only bettered Les Bleus once in 13 meetings spanning a decade. A self-destructive streak, combined with an awful injury list, has seen a Six Nations that exploded into life in Cardiff five weeks ago unravel alarmingly, moving O’Brien to demand an end to their recent malaise. “We know what we have to do against France – losing is not an option,” the Lions back-row contender said. “There is a pride element and we’re playing at home. If we win the last two games we leave ourselves in a good enough place, hopefully. That starts this weekend. We need to come out of the traps nice and hard. After the disappointment of losing to England and Scotland, everyone’s up for it.”
Ireland’s inconsistency has been maddening and looks set to deny head coach Declan Kidney a contract extension beyond the summer but, even allowing for their depletion by injury, they remain dangerous adversaries.
Adding to Ireland’s frustration is that, against England, their tactics and execution were poor while, in Edinburgh, they were left wondering how they failed to turn 79 per cent possession into victory. Had they been smarter in Dublin four weeks ago and shown greater composure at Murrayfield, they and not England would have been two victories away from a Grand Slam.
“We’ve created so much and aren’t that far away from it. A ball here and there and it would have been different. It’s about knowing how to finish,” O’Brien said. “There are more positives than negatives.”
Ireland’s chances have improved with the selection by France coach Philippe Saint-Andre of Frederic Michalak at fly-half. The arrival of Michalak in the defeat by England two weeks ago, in place of the impressive Francois Trinh-Duc, contributed to Les Bleus’ downfall at Twickenham and he has been poor throughout the championship.
Michalak offers an extra goalkicking option in what is expected to a miserable day in Dublin.
Today will be Brian O’Driscoll’s last match at Lansdowne Road if he decides to retire at the end of the season, but Kidney is hoping he continues. “Please God this won’t be his last game. He had a smashing game against Wales,” he said. “To turn out against England shows his passion for the whole thing.”