Ronan O’Gara feels Ireland have regained some credibility with their agonising 26-21 RBS 6 Nations defeat by France – but he refuses to celebrate failure.
A stunning fightback inspired by their pack and assisted by some suicidal substitutions from Les Bleus swept the Irish to the brink of victory.
O’Gara stroked over a penalty with two minutes to go and their unstoppable momentum put Ireland in position to land the decisive blow, but the ball ran dead.
Had there been just a fraction more time on the clock, they would surely have been celebrating only their second triumph in Paris since 1972.
The reputation of Irish rugby has taken a fearful battering since their meltdown after last year’s Six Nations, a slump that reached its nadir at the World Cup.
O’Gara, who according to skipper Brian O’Driscoll delivered a stirring team speech on the eve of the match, believes the performance has restored some pride in the national side.
But the Munster fly-half, who finished with 11 points, insists any satisfaction is muted by the outcome.
“I have to keep some things private in terms of what I said by way of motivation,” he said. “We’ve been trying to get credibility back in the Irish team and we hadn’t managed to do that.
“Against France we took a step in the right direction but this team needs a win. It’s been a long time since Ireland have produced a satisfying performance like that.
“I asked the players to be honest and I thought we were honest yesterday. But now we need to kick on.
“At Munster I’m used to winning and I expected to beat France. We’re sore at the result and a few of us are very disappointed.
“The fellas aren’t happy – we were beaten again in Paris and that was the bottom line. We did perform but I’m not content with a morale-boosting performance – I play sport to win.
“We’re our own worst enemies at times because we need to start believing in ourselves.
“There are some quality players in the team. The potential is there, we just need to start believing in ourselves and kick on.”
Ireland looked finished by the 52nd minute when Cedric Heymans raced over for a fortuitous converted try that sent France 26-6 ahead.
Vincent Clerc had done the telling damage by plundering a blistering first-half hat-trick that underlined his status as the most dangerous back in Europe.
The Toulouse assassin, sporting bright orange boots, ruthlessly exploited Geordan Murphy’s wing to emerge as Ireland’s chief destroyer once again.
Clerc’s injury-time try at Croke Park in last season’s Six Nations ultimately denied Ireland the Grand Slam and he has now crossed six times in three games against the Triple Crown holders.
Alongside full-back and Toulouse team-mate Heymans he was devastating, and O’Gara likened the duo to Manchester United’s supremely gifted winger Cristiano Ronaldo.
“Heymans and Clerc are phenomenal players and that’s the quality you need,” he said.
“They scored 20 points against us and you can only admire the skill they have. They’re like Ronaldo at United and are fantastic players.
“The way they play in the back three means there are very little kicking options, so you have to move the ball from inside your own half.”
Much of the pre-match build-up had focused on under-fire coach Eddie O’Sullivan and the possible repercussions of a heavy defeat in Paris.
But a lucky break arrived in the shape of opposite number Marc Lievremont’s decision to replace prop Lionel Faure with outclassed rookie Julien Brugnaut in the 49th minute.
Buckling in response to the introduction of Brugnaut, France’s scrum repeatedly collapsed close to the line and conceded a penalty try in the 61st minute.
With Les Bleus rapidly losing confidence – key playmaker Jean-Baptiste Elissalde had also been replaced – Ireland dominated up front with flanker David Wallace driving over from close range.
“The first-half turnovers killed us. With one we gave away seven points, which was probably the difference in the end,” said O’Gara
“We were 19-6 down at half-time, which is a big ask, but I knew we’d have a good patch and we managed to score a couple of tries in the second half.
“In the second half they were tired and it was incredible how quickly they tired.
“We should never have let that ball go dead at the end. It was a bad mistake to make and showed inexperience.
“We had to keep hammering away because you are not going to score out wide on the last play of the game.
“We should have kept the ball in the forwards and stuck at it that way.”