Sat, 12 Mar 2005

From: Reuters

Erratic French next test in Irish grand slam hunt

Agencies, Dublin

Although France have "downgraded" Saturday's Six Nations match in Dublin after their hopes of a second successive clean sweep were ended by Wales, Ireland's grand slam dream remains very much alive.

While the French say they are now treating the Dublin clash as preparation for the next World Cup, Ireland are eagerly eyeing a once-in-a-generation opportunity to seize European test rugby's biggest prize.

"We don't want to be nearly men, we want something tangible as evidence of our success," Irish captain Brian O'Driscoll said this week.

"We must improve on winning four out of five games so that in the future we can look back and say we won the championship. Some of the guys are getting to the end of their careers, so we have to make hay while the sun shines."

Ireland have finished runners-up in the last two championships, winning the triple crown last year, but have not won the tournament since 1985 and have only ever completed one grand slam, in 1948.

With victories completed over Italy, Scotland and England, they must now overcome the French to set up a Celtic grand slam showdown against Wales in Cardiff on March 19 -- assuming the Welsh can dispatch the struggling Scots in Edinburgh on Sunday.

But Grand Slam hopefuls Wales will need no reminding about the perils of taking victory at Murrayfield for granted.

The history of what is now the Six Nations championship is littered with instances of talented Welsh sides traveling north only to see title expectations ground into the mud at the home of Scottish rugby.

"France are a huge challenge for us but we can beat them if we play to the best of our ability," said O'Driscoll.

Always unpredictable, France have been at their most erratic this season.

They were dreadful in the first half of their second match against England at Twickenham, but went on to win, and played sublime rugby in the opening 20 minutes of their third round match against Wales in Paris, but ended up losing.

Although they can still win the championship if they triumph in Dublin and beat Italy convincingly in the final round, France say their attention is already on the 2007 World Cup on home soil.

"We wanted to win this tournament and we thought we had all the cards in hand to do it but we now have to admit that Ireland and Wales are ahead," said France's assistant coach Jacques Brunel this week.

"We now regard the Ireland game as a stage, a very important stage, toward rebuilding our team for the 2007 World Cup."