When they eventually got it on, we witnessed an enthralling if inconclusive 80 odd minutes, a draw in this fixture for the first time since 1985.
After such an absorbing contest which had everything in terms of drama, unrelenting physicality and unbridled commitment, the players are left with a horrible empty feeling with little to show for their efforts. I played in that game 27 years ago and know exactly how they feel. In time they will come to appreciate they did achieve something of value yesterday. Just how they will be able to get themselves up for another dockyard brawl against Scotland in five days remains to be seen and will certainly challenge the Irish management.
There was a strange feeling to this contest from the moment I exited the Metro at Basilique de St-Denis. The canal that was frozen solid only three weeks ago now accommodated a lone fisherman, completely oblivious to the carnage that was about to unfold less than 500 metres away. There was a non-Six Nations feel to the whole occasion and you just wondered if that would work in Ireland's favour. Once the game started, however, it was clear that both sides were up for the fight.
Despite the fact Ireland led by 11 points at the break it was also clear the job was far from done. Philippe Saint-Andre doesn’t always start with his strongest team but certainly finishes with it. He may now have cause to revise that strategy. The key for France was that they amassed eight points in that key ten minutes after the break even before the introduction of the outstanding William Servat and Vincent Debaty. They had an immediate impact with France generating quick ball for the first time in the contest.
The fact they were unable to close the deal was testament to the bravery of the Irish in defence and their sheer collective willpower. Right from the outset Ireland reverted to the blitz defence favoured by Wales and defended from the outside in. France couldn’t cope with the pressure and when Tommy Bowe scored from an intercept after13 minutes it gave Ireland the impetus they needed to carry the game to the French right through to half time.
All the lessons of the opening two games were put into practice with the vastly improved line speed in defence causing the French to implode. Ireland clearly targeted the contact area, flooding the breakdown with bodies and frustrating the French time and again. France also learned from their passive effort in Murrayfield in this area, making for anincredible contest with neither side prepared to yield an inch.
I have accused Ireland recently of not playing smart rugby but they can’t be accused of that on this occasion. They even recognised when to gamble on the professional foul and concede three points when seven seemed the more likely outcome. Paul O’Connell and Cian Healy diced with yellow peril much to the annoyance of the French crowd, but got away with it. It was cynical but it isn’t as if it has never happened the other way around. It may, however, have contributed to changing the mindset of referee Dave Pearson who penalised Ireland with increasing regularity as the game progressed.
The opening half was a masterclass in turning pressure into points, with Jonny Sexton imperious in defence and kicking well out of hand. Kudos too on his split-second decision-making that fashioned a second try for Bowe when, on turnover possession deep in his 22, he recognised Ireland had numbers and space out wide to attack. The net result after great hands from Stephen Ferris and Keith Earls was a quite magnificent seven pointer from Bowe. France were shell-shocked and Ireland sprinted to the sanctuary of the dressing room at the break with a sense that no Irish side has ever experienced at the interval in the Stade de France. When Ireland won here 12 years ago they had survived a pummelling in the opening 40 minutes. On this occasion it was the French who were feeling the pain.
The problem was you just knew that Servat, Debaty, Lionel Nallet and Louis Picamoles would be sprung to test the resilience and staying power of this brave Irish side. Conceding eight points so quickly after the break was a killer but the real turning point was Ireland’s failure to register a single point in a sustained eight minute period of pressure from the 65th minute onwards when camped in the French 22. Ireland have been clinical in such situations in the championship so far but on this occasion their execution let them down badly.
Rory Best had a crucial overthrow to a perfectly positioned lineout only five metres from the French line and Gordon D'Arcy allowed the greasy ball to slip from his grasp when attempting to feed an overlap out wide. Those two key moments broke Ireland's momentum. Ireland need to recognise that setting up a drop goal in such situations isn’t only a last ditch option. Any points at that stage of the match could well have provided the catalyst to propel Ireland to victory.
What they did do, however, was display are markable resilience in defence in that frantic closing period when the French owned the ball. Ferris was a colossus, executing several crucial tackles in quick succession to stem the tide. He even managed to summon a last burst of energy to block Lionel Beauxis’ drop goal attempt at the death and save the day. When it came to it, France had nobody in the O’Gara mould to deliver the final hammer blow.
How fitting also that Rob Kearney should be the one to make that match-saving final tackle of the game on Julien Malzieu to deny the French the win that now leaves Wales as the only side able to win the Grand Slam. Kearney was magnificent, with one take suspended in the air over the king of aerial combat Imanol Harinordoquy, inspirational.
So for the third time in a period of seven months Ireland have failed to lower the French colours. After defeats in Bordeaux and Dublin in those World Cup warm up games back in August to achieve a draw in Paris is not to be sniffed at. You can be sure that the Irish players won’t see it that way for some time though.