by George Hook
The odds on an Irish win have actually shortened quite a lot since the announcement of the team. That is because the coach, Declan Kidney, said he would pick players that were performing well and pick them in the positions they normally play in and he has actually done so.
It is a simple remark but it actually represents quite a dramatic change, basically cause we have seen players at Leinster and Ireland continually picked out of position over the past number of seasons.
The classic example is Rob Kearney, who is the best full-back in Ireland but was being picked on the wing for both the national side and his province. In fact, if not for an injury situation at Leinster and the arrival of Isa Nacewa, he might still be out there. He is now in his correct postion. Having Luke Fitzgerald in his best position - the wing - is an equally important selection.
But the biggest single selection choice Kidney had to make was the centre partner for Brian O'Driscoll and again, he has done what he said he would do. He could have played O'Driscoll at inside centre and possibly Keith Earls, had he been fit, or Luke Fitzgerald, but neither of those players, for all their attributes, are natural centres. Instead, he picked Paddy Wallace.
In fact, Wallace himself is a classic example of what happens to players when you try to use them in the wrong position. As the back-up fly-half in the Eddie O'Sullivan squads he endured a lot of public criticism for his performances. Equally damaging to his self-esteem was that he spent most of his time sitting on the bench and getting on for five minutes in the odd match.
Paddy Wallace - right call at inside centre
He is now a confident player; a good passer who is quick and has an eye for a break. The Ulster coach Matt Williams deserves a lot of credit for making that happen because as soon as Williams started picked Wallace in the right position, he blossomed.
However, there are question marks about his defence. The French centres – Florian Fritz and Yannick Jauzion – are big and will certainly attack the channel between Wallace and Ronan O'Gara, neither of whom are good front on tacklers. It is one of the areas in which France can cause us a problem.
In the pack, the choice of Jamie Heaslip over Denis Leamy at number eight is based almost entirely on Leamy's lack of match fitness. Heaslip has probably had his worst season in top flight rugby and is getting picked on the basis of two decent matches in the last month or so. What you do get from having Leamy on the bench is that if Ireland are hanging on with 20 minutes to go, bringing on a very abrasive, strong tackling player like Leamy is a very good option.
I do have a concern over Kidney's choice of captain. Retaining Brian O'Driscoll is clearly a political decision, whatever way it has been dressed up although I wouldn't necessarily quarrel with Kidney over it. That is because he has proved what a good coach, motivator and manager he is and he clearly believes that having a team in which two-thirds of the side are from Munster, as well as a Munster coach, and a Munster captain would not be the smart thing to do.
Question mark over Ireland captain's on-field leadership
But the problem for Ireland is that O'Driscoll has not demonstrated strong captaincy skills when the team has been under pressure, particularly in recent times. That has been the situation for the last 11 games, of which we have won only four and during which time we haven't beaten anybody of any quality.
The other question you have to ask is – 'how damaging is this to Ireland's chances of getting the Lions' captaincy' because if one thing is certain it is that Brian O'Driscoll will not be the Lions' captain. On the other hand, Paul O'Connell could be. Have his chances been damaged because he is not the Ireland captain?
Looking at the opposition, it is an absolute mystery to me why people persist in talking France down. The coaches and captains of the all the other teams are saying that France are the team to beat, and they are right.
What has happened is that everybody has assumed that because Marc Lievremont has left certain players out – Jean-Baptiste Elissalde for example – that he has made bad decisions across the board. That is not necessarily the case.
France have picked a team to attack
He has, however, picked a team to attack. France are coming to Dublin to play an expansive game that is true to their traditions of high-speed and verve. What may scupper that is that they could end up playing in the arctic because Croke Park on Saturday could be better suited to Polar bears than rugby players.
Ireland, on the other hand, have shown over the last number of years that they are better in a set-piece battle then in a game of movement, principally because they don't have the back-row to play that type of game.
Ireland will want to steer clear of playing fast and loose in this game and they may be able to do so as, depending on the weather, it could be a scrum and lineout match. If O'Gara can control the game, he can also make it into a slugfest, which the French won't want. The other crucial factor is that in Nigel Owens, Ireland have gotten the right referee. With Owens in charge, they may be able to hold on to possession for long periods and if France find that they can't get their hands on the ball, they may become frustrated.
So, even though France are stronger and are the type of side Ireland don't like playing against, I think this has actually become quite a narrow contest.
But I still think France are going to win.