United Ireland have spring in their step

AFTER the mind-numbing November, this was the February fizz.

Of course, it takes two teams to tango and France certainly played their part in making this one of the most enjoyable RBS Six Nations matches we have witnessed for quite some time. They came to play and with a different bounce of the ball and a missed tackle here and there, might well have departed with their eighth successive victory over the Irish. They will certainly do some damage before the campaign is a whole lot older.

This time, though, the boys in green had the self belief and confidence to finish off the job and they have now set themselves up for a big championship. It would obviously be premature to predict anything too grandiose and false dawns are something we are well acquainted with.

Nevertheless, this was an excellent Irish performance, especially when compared with what we were subjected to in the autumn, so coach Declan Kidney was well entitled to claim considerable improvement in the meantime. There is little doubt that the success of the provinces in Europe has had much to do with this and it should only be forward from here.

Italy in Rome is next on the agenda and on the weekend’s evidence, shouldn’t pose too much of a danger although Kidney will, quite rightly, demand improvement and a change of strategy in one or two key areas. He has already made it clear that Tomás O’Leary won’t be indulging in as much box kicking as he did on Saturday when all too often he was providing the French backs with the kind of service with which they can be lethal.

Once again, though, the number nine did many things right and clearly looks at home, sure of what he is doing at the highest level. Scrum-half is one position where Ireland are well off given that Peter Stringer has to be satisfied with a place on the bench and there’s no room at all in the 22 for Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss.

However, that is far from the situation at out-half. Once again, the need to keep Ronan O’Gara fit and well was demonstrated by another masterful display by the number ten (his pass for Brian O’Driscoll’s try was awesome) while there is always the nagging dread that the prospects for province and country would be a whole lot gloomier were he to succumb to injury. Paddy Wallace doesn’t measure up and Kidney has little time for Ian Humphreys so the alternatives to O’Gara are as scarce as ever.

However, the positives for this Irish side are considerable. They scored three tries, all beautifully taken, with the first two fit to stand alongside any produced by the national side. Jamie Heaslip needed a big match after a quiet season and he produced. His try is certainly up there with those memorably touched down for their country over the years by previous number eights, Ken Goodall and Noel Mannion, to mention but two. Heaslip also had a fine all-round match. He stole one great ball from the French at a crucial stage of the second half and merited the man of the match tag.

How satisfying it is to report though that Brian O’Driscoll ran the number eight very close. He makes a point of really turning it on against the French and his latest try will be recalled for many a day to come. It was vintage O’Driscoll and will cost Lionel Beauxis and Julien Malzieu, whom he ran through as if they didn’t exist, one or two sleepless nights.

The facial knocks that forced Paddy Wallace out of the action on a couple of occasions enabled Gordon D’Arcy to return to the international fold and he took the opportunity to remind Kidney that he is still a player of the highest quality. He capped his cameo of appearances with a very well taken try and has left the coach with a dilemma — whether to stay loyal to Wallace, who in fairness didn’t do a whole lot wrong, or opt for the extra class that D’Arcy unquestionably brings to the equation.

Interestingly, it was a great game for Leinster players who contributed all three tries. Their contingent looked a lot more comfortable in the green of Ireland than they have done in the blue of their province but it all suggests that they can now go on to deliver on all that promise they have shown over the past many years.

Rob Kearney was sound under the high ball and his general football skills were again very much to the fore. Luke Fitzgerald’s class has been appreciated from his earliest days and on Saturday he also proved that he knows how to tackle. On the other wing, Tommy Bowe looked a far more rounded player than he was in his time with Ulster.

An Irish forward edge had been flagged from the time the teams were announced and it came via a collective effort ahead of any outstanding individual contributions. True, Paul O’Connell was again immense, John Hayes celebrated his 90th cap with a thundering display and Heaslip had the kind of day that number eights can only dream of. But each and every man played his part and that is a factor that probably pleased Kidney more than anything else.

And France? Well, coach Marc Lièvremont stressed time and time again how disappointed he was with his side’s discipline. While he declined to criticise referee Nigel Owens, the tone of his comments suggested that he was anything but happy with the Welshman’s handling of the game.

Lièvremont asked for much of the stick that has come his way over the past 18 months or so and again in the build-up to Saturday’s game. He almost certainly could have selected a better side but such is the strength of the game in France that they still looked a very potent force for much of the 80 minutes.

IRELAND: R Kearney; T Bowe, B O’Driscoll (capt), P Wallace, L Fitzgerald; R O’Gara, T O’Leary; M Horan, J Flannery, J Hayes; D O’Callaghan, P O’Connell; S Ferris, D Wallace, J Heaslip.

Replacements: G D’Arcy for P Wallace (28-35 & 60-80); R Best for Flannery (48); D Leamy for Ferris (72); G Murphy for Kearney (75).

FRANCE: C Poitrenaud; M Medard, F Fritz, Y Jauzion, J Malzieu; L Beauxis, S Tillous-Borde; L Faure, D Szarzewski, B Lecouls; S Chabal, L Nallet (capt); T Dusautoir, I Harionordoquy, F Ouedraogo.

Replacements: N Mas for Lecouls (ht); R Millo-Chluski for Chabal (61); M Parra for Tillous-Borde (70); L Picamoles for Harinordoquy (70); C Heymans for Nallet (73); B Baby for Fritz (78).

Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales).

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