After falling 26-6 behind in the 52nd minute, the floodgates might well have opened but, helped enormously by a generous penalty try decision by Welsh referee Nigel Owens, they stormed back into the game and were within a seven pointer of a famous win. Indeed, Ireland had forced a line-out on their own throw on the French line when the final whistle came a second too soon.
How ironic, too, that it was Vincent Clerc, so often before the scourge of the Irish and wasn’t included in the original French selection, who ran in a hat-trick of tries in the opening half. Clerc’s undoubted opportunism, a few bad turnovers by the Irish and the failure of Geordan Murphy, especially, and one or two other Irish defenders to deal with the threat, combined to put the French 19-6 ahead at the break.
There was also another sense of irony in that Ireland had produced their best forty minutes of rugby since Rome last March and still found themselves in a more or less hopeless situation at that point. Ronan O’Gara’s two penalties were scant reward for the team’s efforts and things went further awry when the flying Cedric Heymans was favoured by a lucky bounce of the ball not long after the restart. When given half a chance, the certainty is that the flying full-back will not be caught.
Three of the four tries were converted by Jean-Baptiste Elissalde but with their new and inexperienced coach Mark Lievremont now getting a little bit ahead of himself, the game was about to change utterly. Among other changes made out of apparent complacency, he brought in Julien Brugnaut at loose head prop for Lionel Faure and suddenly an area where the French had been comfortable became an Achille’s heel.
The newcomer was no match for John Hayes. Suddenly, Ireland enjoyed a distinct advantage at the set piece and seven minutes after Brugnaut’s arrival, the French scrum caved in on a couple of occasions and Mr Barnes had no hesitation in awarding a penalty try. In all truth, though, there was a lot of work to be done before there could have been any certainty that a try would actually have been scored.
O’Gara popped over the conversion and suddenly we had a match on our hands. The Irish pack was now believing in itself. Denis Leamy seemed to be everywhere, Donncha O’Callaghan was like a man possessed, Jamie Heaslip belied his inexperience with a thundering display and Mick O’Driscoll came in to provide the dynamism that helped turn the game.
It was a pity David Wallace didn’t get the ball in his hands more often. When he did so, he invariably broke the gain line and typically it was he who somehow forced his way over the French line on 66 minutes. O’Gara’s conversion failure didn’t seem too serious at the time but it meant Ireland were still eight points in arrears so that when awarded a penalty shortly afterwards, the out-half had to knock over the goal to put his side within striking distance.
Had he been able to kick for the corner, who knows what might have been the outcome. As it was, time ran out, the badly-rattled French celebrated more in relief than anything else and the bitterly disappointed Irish threw themselves to the ground in desperation. They knew too well that it was a game they should have won.
“It’s been a long time since Ireland produced a satisfying performance like that but the bottom line is that we have been beaten in Paris again”, said O’Gara. “At Munster, I’m used to winning and I expected to win today. We’re sore and very disappointed.”
A succinct summation by the Irish number 10. The failure to deal with the well-known threat posed by Clerc cost the side dearly. Geordan Murphy was marked absent on three crucial occasions and having also allowed Raphael Ibanez in for a soft try 12 months earlier at Croke Park, must dread the sight of Les Bleus. Eddie O’Sullivan dropped Murphy because of that very failure during the World Cup and that could well be his fate again going into the Scottish match on Saturday week.
Mick O’Driscoll now clearly deserves a starting place in that game and there is cautious optimism that Paul O’Connell could come into the reckoning. After the misery of the seven games since before, during and after the World Cup, this performance certainly inspires the hope that better things could finally be on the way. However, there is some way to go yet before good judges will be convinced that the corner has finally been turned.
Even allowing for Clerc’s class and opportunism, the concession of those three simple first half tries bordered on the ludicrous. The line-out was also a problem area with doubts still remaining about Bernard Jackman’s throwing although he did make a sterling contribution in other areas. Ireland lost four of their own balls including two in a row near the French line immediately after half time just before the Heymans try.
The positives up front came in the scrums and in the loose. Hayes was magnificent for the 76 minutes he spent on the pitch and a cameo appearance from his replacement Tony Buckley suggested that he, too, will serve his country well in the number three jersey. Heaslip’s impressive showing and the greater comfort Leamy enjoys in the number six jersey make it all the more difficult to understand why they weren’t paired together a week earlier against Italy.
Eoin Reddan is looking increasingly comfortable at this exalted level and it was a great pity that he didn’t have the necessary support when he made a lightning break inside the French 22 in the closing minutes. O’Gara had a pretty faultless game, his distribution a particular joy to behold. Andrew Trimble settled well in the centre as partner to his captain Brian O’Driscoll who tried his heart out but seems to have lost the extra yard of pace that made him one of rugby’s finest two or three years ago.
Eddie O’Sullivan was already warning yesterday of the danger of complacency among players and public alike in the build-up to the Scottish game. Wise though such a course of action might be, anything other than a continuation of Saturday’s form would be a setback of considerable proportions. Everything in the garden is not rosy just yet but there can be no return to the dismal days of the World Cup.
France — Tries: Clerc 3, Heymans. Cons: Elissalde 3.
Ireland — Tries: Penalty, D. Wallace. Cons: O’Gara. Pens: O’Gara 3.
C Heymans, A Rougerie, D Marty, D Traille, V Clerc, D Skrela, JB Elissalde, N Mas, D Szarzewski, L Faure, A Mela, L Nallet, F Ouedraogo, T Dusautoir, J Bonnaire.
Replacements: F Trinh-Duc for Skrela (76), M Parra for Elissalde (64), W Servat for Szarzewski (47), J Brugnaut for Faure (47).
G Dempsey, G Murphy, B. O’Driscoll, A Trimble, R Kearney, R O’Gara, E Reddan; M Horan, B Jackman, J Hayes, D O’Callaghan, M O’Kelly, D Leamy, D. Wallace, J Heaslip.
Replacements: R Best for Jackman (59), T Buckley for Hayes (77), M. O’Driscoll for O’Kelly (53).
Nigel Owens (WRFU).