In different circumstances, say three weeks ago, this might have been considered a famous result for Irish rugby.
Instead, the Ireland squad and head coach Declan Kidney left Stade de France last night with feelings very definitely of the glass half-empty variety.
For the second year in a row an RBS 6 Nations Grand Slam dream has been crushed by a wholehearted Irish effort, but whereas England were put to the sword 12 months ago in Dublin, there was as much disappointment in the Ireland dressing room yesterday as there was in the French one.
It is easy to understand why. Ireland outscored France in tries and did not win for the second year in a row. Neither did they score a point in the rainy second half of yesterday’s pulsating encounter, rescheduled following that controversial postponement on February 11, and let slip a 17-6 half-time lead in a city where there has been no Ireland victory in a dozen years.
That would leave even the most optimistic of souls somewhat down in the mouth. Yet as reasonable as those emotions are, there will be no time to wallow in such a mood with Scotland visiting Dublin this Saturday for round four of this RBS 6 Nations Championship.
At least the Ireland party were spared the post-match formalities — part of the deal grudgingly accepted by the IRFU from the Six Nations when the organisers handed them a Sunday game for the rematch and thus burdened the Irish with just a six-day turnaround before Saturday’s date with the Scots.
The time saved will at least give Kidney and his coaching staff a couple more hours to prepare the groundwork for putting right the mistakes made by their players that cost them the chance of emulating their victorious predecessors of 2000.
Ireland had been in pole position at the interval to do just that, with an 11-point cushion over a misfiring France outfit, having done everything that had been asked of them to eradicate the poor first-half performance they had produced against Italy eight days earlier.
Kidney’s team were superb in defence and attack for those first 40 minutes in Paris, tearing into the home ball-carriers at speed and with aggression to unsettle a home side which had shown no sign of learning the lessons of their own sloppy opening against Scotland the previous Sunday.
There was an early opportunity to get points on the board when fly-half Jonny Sexton had a long-range penalty in front of the posts but screwed it wide. It appeared to matter not though, as Ireland twice turned defence into attack with devastating results. First Tommy Bowe intercepted a long pass in midfield from Aurelien Rougerie and sprinted 35 metres to score under the posts.
Then came the move of the game as Sean O’Brien won turnover ball at a ruck in Ireland’s own 22 and the visitors conjured a superb try, attacking from deep with Conor Murray moving it wide through Stephen Ferris and Keith Earls, who found Bowe on the right touchline. It was all Bowe from there, the Ulsterman chipping over full-back Clement Poitrenaud and leaving him for dust to collect. There was still work to do but with Rob Kearney offering excellent cover the last French defender was caught in two minds, and Bowe dummied a pass to create the space to dive over the line and score his fifth try of the championship. Sexton converted from the touchline to send Ireland in at the break sniffing that rare victory.
Alas, it was not to be. The interval allowed France to regroup and re-focus. They had beaten Italy and Scotland without playing well for 80 minutes and having ceded the first 40 of this match to the Irish, they set about making up for lost time.
That Ireland helped them do so was the thing that left Kidney and captain Paul O’Connell looking so despondent in their post-match press conference. A poor lineout effort that saw France steal Irish ball three times and an inferior scrum denied the visitors any platform, one collision seeing Ireland’s pack driven so far back Murray could not even feed them the put-in before a penalty was conceded.
And then there were handling errors in the rain and the indiscipline at ruck time that allowed Morgan Parra to keep France within touching distance before Wesley Fofana’s soft, 50th-minute try got them fully back in the game.
“It’s hard to hold field position if the turnovers are going against you in that way. That’s obviously an area we’ll have a major look at,” Kidney said.
“In the first half they were inclined to go wide, in the second half they put it up the jumper and with the laws the way they are now that’s an area we’ll take a good look at and see what technique we can use to get the ball back to us.
“There were some other cases where we turned the ball over too and those ones are definitely more within our own control. Between the two of those things there is plenty for us to work on.”
That still left Kidney with the feeling that this was one that got away.
“I’m disappointed for the lads. They put in a huge effort. I was proud of them. I couldn’t be asking any more. I’m proud of the fact that we believed in ourselves just to go out play our own game. We didn’t try to do something extraordinary and cough up easy scores.
“If you’re not disappointed when you don’t win you shouldn’t be in the job. It’s different from three years ago. This is not the Grand Slam side of three years ago. There’s seven or eight changes in the side now and we’re having to learn a few things along the way, and we didn’t panic in the second-half, which I was happy with. We did a lot of things well, and the more you do well the more disappointing it is when you don’t close it out.”
FRANCE: C Poitrenaud (L Beauxis 68); V Clerc, A Rougerie, W Fofana, J Malzieu; F Trinh-Duc, M Parra; JB Poux (V Debaty 53), D Szarzewski (W Servat, 53), N Mas; P Pape (L Nallet 61), Y Maestri; T Dusautoir, J Bonnaire (L Picamoles, 71), I Harinordoquy.
Replacements not used: J Dupuy, M Mermoz.
IRELAND: R Kearney; T Bowe, K Earls, G D’Arcy (R O’Gara 71), A Trimble (F McFadden 72); J Sexton, C Murray (E Reddan 59); C Healy (T Court 75), R Best (S Cronin 75), M Ross; P O’Connell (capt), D O’Callaghan (D Ryan 58); S Ferris, S O’Brien (P O’Mahony 66), J Heaslip.
Referee: Dave Pearson (England).
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