A French test that has proven difficult to pass
Grand Slam denying defeat in 1982 epitomises Ireland’s problems in Paris
Donal Lenihan is beaten in the lineout during Ireland’s 22-9 defeat to France in the Parc des Princes in 1982. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
There are more than enough examples of Paris being the graveyard of Ireland’s ambitions over the decades, but perhaps the most pertinent one is 1982. On March 20th, an Ireland team spearheaded by Ollie Campbell behind the so-called Dad’s Army pack and sprinkled with young backs had already delivered a first Triple Crown in 33 years and were one game away from completing a Grand Slam against France, who made eight changes and won 22-9 to avoid a whitewash.
Ireland had gone into the season on the back of six successive defeats, including a whitewash in 1981, which was their worst since the early 1960s. However, they did push Australia to a 16-12 win in November, when Tom Kiernan gave debuts to Donal Lenihan and Trevor Ringland, and blooded the once-capped Paul Dean at centre, and for the opener against Wales, put back a week due to a snowbound Lansdowne Road, recalled the fit-again Ciarán Fitzgerald as captain, Ginger McLoughlin and Moss Keane, restored Ollie Campbell at outhalf and the once-capped Moss Finn on the wing.
Campbell was majestic, setting up both of Finn’s tries, with Ringland also scoring in a 20-12 win. A fortnight later Michael Kiernan made his first start in a deserved 16-15 win over England at Twickenham. Campbell was again superb, and after MacNeill’s first-half try, McLoughlin was famously driven over the line to seal the win.
Two weeks later, with Keith Crossan making his debut in place of the injured Ringland and the Irish pack steamrollering their Scottish counterparts, Campbell equalled the then Test record of six penalties in one match and added a drop goal for an Irish record haul of 21 points in the 21-12 win.
Admittedly, the Triple Crown was a prized reward back then, and having celebrated that achievement fully four weeks earlier, Ireland also travelled to Paris with the Five Nations title secured as well. They also lost Willie Duggan on the morning of the match with a thumb injury, leading to an unscheduled debut for Ronan Kearney. According to Fergus Slattery, the four-week interlude was critical.
“You go off and you celebrate, and I think we didn’t play as well as we had done against Wales, England and Scotland. We played our worst match and to be fair to the French they had absolutely nothing to lose. The French are extraordinary, and this applies to the Irish side at the weekend. When the French play at home they kick the living daylights out of the opposition and when they play away, the opposition kick the living daylights out of them. That’s just the way it works in France.
“So, in Paris, you have to beat the French up in the first ten minutes, because if you don’t do that you’re going to struggle. You upset their whole thought process and confidence, and in ’82 we played okay, and that just isn’t good enough.”
Jacques Fouroux’s revamped team were a bit too pumped for their own good at times that day in Parc e Princes, but, having trailed 6-3 at half-time, after a try by winger Serge Blanco ten minutes into the second-half France pulled away. However, even if an away team doesn’t take the game to them in the opening ten minutes, Slattery maintains no team can be more dangerous if trailing by a score late on.
“They just throw caution completely to the wind, not unlike New Zealand, and they’ll run it from anywhere. They’ll run it from outside the stadium if they have to, and they’ll do the most outrageous things and generally they work, because they’ve great skill sets and a huge reservoir of talent. Their mindset has been appalling this season at times, and looked like they threw in the towel in Wales, but they won’t do that at home because they’ll get their houses burnt down.
“So playing a bad side in Paris doesn’t mean they’re going to be crap, but I would say in ’82 we had too big a gap and they also sharpened their pencils and put a better side together. I’m not saying we felt we were going to walk away with it. We didn’t. I just don’t think we did enough.”
That said, Slattery assuredly speaks for pretty much everyone back then when admitting that the anti-climactic finale didn’t spoil winning the Triple Crown, as much as the title. “Of course we would like to have won a Grand Slam, and I believe should have done in 1972, but the French hadn’t really become strong since the late ’50s. They had been the Italians of their time until the ’60s, whereas when I started . . . we hadn’t won a Triple Crown since 1949, before they [France] caught up with us and overtook us.”
‘On the piss’
“I don’t want to create the impression that we went on the piss for four weeks, it was just that we’d been patted on the back for four weeks and the Triple Crown seemed to be the big, big thing, and when we won we did celebrate. There’s no doubt about that.”
There were some annoyingly near misses along the way in Paris. And therein lies another concern, the recent trend of fruitless sorties to Paris.
“Everybody will respect the French. This French side can transform themselves to being good or even very good, so we have to go out there on the basis we are playing a very good French side and if they go out with the right approach they’ll do it.”