ireland rugby
AFP PHOTO

Ireland have been finding life tough since New Zealand coach Steve Hansen anointed them as the best team in the world and face a “massive match” against France on Sunday Irish, rugby great Tony Ward told AFP.

Indeed Hansen — who handed them that poisoned chalice when the Irish beat his world champions last November in an historic home Test win — has been at it again suggesting that Joe Schmidt and his players have not handled being the hunted nearly as well as they did when they were the hunters.

Ward — regarded as one of Ireland’s finest ever fly-halves — concurs saying the opening Six Nations loss to England “knocked the wind out of our sails”.

Two subsequent workmanlike away wins over Scotland and Italy — Schmidt admits the Irish have lacked cohesion — righted the ship a bit but a huge amount is riding on Sunday’s game at Lansdowne Road.

The Irish realistically need to win to maintain their outside hopes of retaining the title against a French side that arrives with their confidence boosted following a much-needed victory over Scotland last time out.

“This is a massive game in every way,” Ward told AFP by phone.

“The French side are showing signs of revival, have great half-backs (fly-half Romain Ntamack/scrum-half Antoine Dupont) though I am not sure about their centres and the same starting XV (the first time since Jacques Brunel took over in December 2017) which is an achievement of its own.

“It is a huge game and if Ireland win against a French side on the rise and with a little bit of substance to it makes us look as if we are on our way back to the form of last November.”

Ward, who was the inaugural European Player of the Year back in 1979, believes part of the problem has been the ever worsening mood of present fly-half and world player of the year Johnny Sexton.

AFP / ANDY BUCHANAN Ireland’s fly-half Jonathan Sexton needs to up his game against France, says Irish legend Tony Ward

This boiled over when 33-year-old Sexton showed his displeasure when he exited late in the match against Italy — he has put it down to frustration.

Ward, though, is having none of that.

“I like Johnny Sexton but it makes me really angry to see him throwing tantrums it is detrimental to morale in squad,” said Ward.

“He explains it by saying this is the way I am but that is not good enough

“Leaders are meant to inspire not alienate.

“If I was a player in the squad I would not want him as a team leader.”

-‘Affects the psyche’ –

AFP / Vincenzo PINTO Ireland’s out of sorts scrum-half Conor Murray needs to improve for the crunch France game

Ward, who is director of rugby at St Gerard’s School near Dublin, believes Ireland need Sexton and his half-back partner Conor Murray to return to the level of form they showed last year — the latter has not looked his old self since returning from a neck injury.

“I am a huge Murray fan but both of them collectively and individually are not playing well,” said the 64-year-old.

“Last year they were on a par with the All Blacks pair and made a world of difference to the rest of the team who were fired up and sparked by them.

“However they have not been firing on all cylinders this year.”

Ward, who made one memorable appearance for the British & Irish Lions scoring 18 points against South Africa in 1980, says Schmidt is Ireland’s greatest ever coach — he also envies the 53-year-old New Zealander’s “Peter Pan” boyish looks — but feels his announcement he is leaving after the World Cup this year has also impacted.

AFP / Vincenzo PINTO Joe Schmidt is Ireland’s greatest ever rugby coach according to Tony Ward but his announcement he has had an impact on the squad

“It affects the psyche of the squad automatically,” said Ward.

“You go from the simple psychology of we are all in this together to the boys knowing that come the end of the World Cup campaign he will be on the first bus out.

“I wish he was not going!!”