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A mixture of 'excitement and nerves' as Ireland arrive in Paris

CJ Stander is relishing the challenge which awaits under the Saturday night lights at the Stade de France.

Ryan Bailey reports from Carton House

THE WORD OF the week around Carton House in the build-up to Ireland’s championship opener against France has been ‘unknown’, but as Joe Schmidt’s side boarded their flight to Paris yesterday evening, they were fully aware of the challenge that awaits.

Ireland Rugby Team Depart for Paris Ireland players board their flight to Paris this evening. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The start of a new campaign naturally engenders certain levels of optimism and excitement and Ireland enter this Six Nations in particularly rude health, particularly when weighed against some of their competitors, and — according to the odds at least –  carry the favourites tag heading into the opening weekend.

But that’s not something which sits well with CJ Stander, who is quick to point out how difficult it has been previously for Ireland to go to Paris in spring and come away with a positive result. The form book, and every other book for that matter, can often go out the window against Les Blues.

And certainly this year Ireland will step further into the ‘unknown’ when they leave the away dressing room just before 4.45pm on Saturday evening.

A hastily-assembled coaching team and a hugely inexperienced squad — devoid of several first-choice players including Morgan Para and Wesley Fofana — means France are not the formidable force they have been in previous championships but that’s not to say Jacques Brunel’s side don’t still carry a dangerous threat.

Ireland have also spoken about their last visit to the Stade de France two years ago when a late Maxime Medard try derailed their campaign, while the horribly slow start at Murrayfield 12 months ago will have been the focus of several team meetings over the last fortnight.

“Our record in Paris hasn’t been talked about, probably our last visit and the frustration we felt after that match,” Schmidt says.

“That is certainly part of it. I don’t think there’s many players in the [France] team that are the same. So there’s quite a few changes, even in two years that sort of turnover, they do paint a slightly different picture.

“The picture is very hard to see in any particular clarity.”

But whichever way you look at it, Ireland’s record in the French capital doesn’t paint a pretty picture. They have won there just once since Brian O’Driscoll’s famous hat-trick in 2000 and that was the Six Nations title-clinching victory four years ago. Overall, Ireland’s championship record in Paris reads: played 23, won three, drawn one and lost 19.

And Stander admits there is a mixture of nerves and excitement in the camp. They know what’s coming down the tracks, while also acutely aware that coming away with the desired result will require a big effort from all involved.

“There are a few boys getting a chance and all of us had a good week’s training so excited for the weekend,” he says. “For all of us it’s the start of a new Six Nations so it’s new and something we’ve worked hard to get into.

“If you train well and prepare well as a collective during the week and make sure you know your role, it’s going to be another game for you. If you prepare well and go out on Saturday and learn from the experienced lads, know what the feeling is in the stadium, and it’s going to be another good game for us.”

Jonathan Sexton celebrates scoring the opening try against France Ireland's last win in Paris was four years ago. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

A fast start on Saturday evening is essential.

“We spoke a lot about it last year and especially coming into this one, we can’t start slow in this competition because you’re going to make it tough for yourself. You have to go out prepare well and get the best result every game, get the win, to give yourself a chance at the end. We’ll take it game by game, week by week so this week is a massive game for us.

“We just need to start well. Get into the game early, make sure you warm up well and don’t let the distractions get into your head and play your game from the start.”

Ireland know they can silence the Parisians and sink French rugby deeper into a nadir with a performance brimming with purpose and intent, and certainly they will look to use their championship experience in doing so.

The gulf in experience between the sides is striking. The Irish starting XV has 609 caps between them, whereas the hosts have just 246, with Brunel handing a Test debut to teenage out-half Matthieu Jalibert and naming just one player over the age of 30 in his side.

Although his hand has been forced, Brunel has not been shy in making bold selection decisions and the inclusion of Jalibert, while exciting, is a huge call considering the 19-year-old only made his professional debut at the start of the season.

“He plays a good game, he’s a very exciting player and he tries anything from everywhere,” Stander says.

“We’ve looked at him the last few days and a lot of us have seen him play in the last few weeks so look he can bring anything, you don’t know what he’s going to bring so from our side you’ve to make sure you get in his face and make sure you get off the line every time.”

CJ Stander Stander is chomping at the bit to pull on the green jersey again. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

You’ll look to put pressure on him? Get in his face?

“Yeah, we try to do that with all the out-halves we play against.

“He’s an exciting player and brings a lot when he plays for his club so looking forward to playing against him.”

For Stander, who declares he is now 100 per cent fit having shaken off a couple of ‘knocks and niggles’, these are the types of occasion which made him commit to Irish and Munster rugby for another three years before Christmas.

“The Six Nations brings something out of all the players, it’s a special competition,” he adds.

“We all look forward from the beginning of the season. It’s something I want to be involved with and always be part of it if I can and selected.”

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