Ireland forwards coach Gert Smal has played down the hype surrounding Saturday’s RBS 6 Nations showdown between France and Ireland, as the defending champions adopt the same game-by-game approach that served them so well last year.
In Gert Smal’s first season as Ireland forwards coach, the men in green made history by securing the nation’s first Grand Slam success in 61 years.
If they want to keep records tumbling and take a sizeable step towards a second Championship crown, Ireland need to win in a city that has provided so many unhappy days for Irish rugby in the past – Paris.
1952, 1972 and 2000 represent Ireland’s last three wins in the French capital. Not that past results are concerning Smal as he prepares the Irish pack for Saturday’s highly-charged encounter.
“We don’t target specific games. We’re doing exactly as we did last year, taking it game-by-game. Prepare as best you can, that’s all that is expected of us,” said the big South African.
“On the day you must put your game together, that’s where the difference lies.
“This whole game was built up as ‘the’ game of this year’s Six Nations. We’re looking forward to it. It’s a great challenge to us.
“The history doesn’t faze me much, the players and the coaching team know about it. I think this team is ready to go for big things and hopefully that can start happening on Saturday.”
A number of Irish players are thriving under Smal’s attention to detail and positive direction, none more so than flanker Stephen Ferris.
Ferris, who has recovered from a knee injury to be named in Saturday’s starting line-up, has previously hailed the fantastic coaching team assembled under Declan Kidney, and Smal is clearly pleased to have the powerful Ulsterman back on board.
“I think Stephen is an outstanding player. Over the years, he’s just struggled to get good continuity in a couple of games, and maybe that’s stifled his development in a certain way – but also his fitness.
“Hopefully he can start getting a good run and we’ll see the real Stephen Ferris. I really think he’s an outstanding player and he can mean a lot to Irish rugby in the future.”
Ferris’ involvement could be crucial against what is a multi-talented French back row unit in captain Thierry Dusautoir, Fulgence Ouedraogo and Imanol Harinordoquy.
It is a contest that Smal is clearly relishing. “They’re all athletes, the French have one of the best back row combinations in world rugby,” he added.
“At this level, all games are tough. You play against good players, Those are the challenges.
“That is what Test rugby is about. It’s a test to see if you’re good enough against the top players in the world.
“This is the opportunity that we get and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
Just as the Irish management have no fears about Ferris slotting back in and producing the type of display required to beat France, the same is the case with lock Leo Cullen.
The Leinster captain returned from RBS 6 Nations exile last weekend, with a solid performance against Italy that included some pinpoint lineout steals.
Cullen has only played one before against France – as a replacement in the 15-12 victory at Lansdowne Road in March 2003.
This will be his third start alongside Paul O’Connell in Ireland’s last four games and Smal knows that Ireland are blessed to have a player of Cullen’s quality to come in and replace the injured Donncha O’Callaghan.
“As I said before the Italian game, I had my full confidence in Leo and Kevin (McLaughlin) that they would be able to do the job for us. And it’s the same with Leo this week.
“What maybe we gain with one player, we lose with another. But I’m very happy.
“The French know him, having played against him in the Heineken Cup. He’s well known for his cleverness in the lineout, he’s a good all-round player.
“He might be an unknown factor (to some of them), but not much. As long as he just plays his game, he can make an impact.”