Irish firepower proves unequal to force majeure of Les Bleus

 

IT’S CUSTOMARY to describe the mass movement of rugby supporters in military terms, usually involving the word “invasion”. But ever since since Napoleon came a cropper, the French don’t really do invasions any more, sporting or otherwise. Their way these days is more subtle.

In the build-up to yesterday’s Six Nations’s rugby match, they infiltrated Dublin gradually and almost unnoticed. The still chilly Irish spring weather helped their subterfuge, allowing them to keep their colours hidden under overcoats, especially on Saturday night. As usual they blended in easily with the wintry city, like extras in a film noir.

It was only when the smoke from the Gauloises cleared and the sun came out yesterday that the full extent of their presence became obvious. Suddenly they were everywhere, like Resistance cells emerging from underground after the liberation of Paris. If the early part of the weekend really had been an intelligence- gathering operation, it had worked. By kick-off time, as they usually do, the French had learned enough about us to win.

The general election was at least partly to blame. On a day when the home team got most of its tactics right it may have been the Fine Gael canvassers outside the Aviva Stadium – unable to pass up a captive audience of 50,000 – who gave the game away.

Sure, they will not have deliberately handed copies of Enda Kenny’s Five Point Recovery Planto the visitors. But clearly a few documents fell into the hands of their fellow Blueshirts. And when an early Irish try left the French in need of a five-point recovery plan – and then a seven-point recovery plan after Jonathan Sexton’s conversion – they knew exactly what to do.

Fine Gael was not alone in last-minute canvassing. Like a tardy groundsman lining the pitch even as the players run out onto it, a lone campaign worker for the Dublin South East Independent candidate Paul Sommerville was still urgently putting posters up on Lansdowne Road half an hour before kick-off. John Gormley was there too, at least in effigy, his image smiling down wanly on supporters, hinting the game could be yet another torrid experience for the Greens.

As they drank beer outside a hotel on Pembroke Road, a group of elaborately attired supporters from Villefranche-sur-Saone, near Lyon, agreed. Their outfit – black suit, white gloves and dress shirts, plus ribbon-bedecked top hat with pressed-in sides (the technical term is “Gibus”) – made them look like a cross between circus ringmasters and undertakers.

Ominously, they explained it was a uniform traditionally worn in their town during festivities in which young men celebrated their military call-up or their imminent departure for war. On which note, a spokesman for the group, Jonnery Dimitri, predicted fierce hostilities down the road, adding (between bites of a hamburger) that the home team was in for a drubbing: “36-6”.

A further ill omen was that, just at that moment, the French team swept past us en route to the stadium, transported by a Cavan-registered bus. If there was a message in this last detail, it was that the French defence might be a lot tighter than the previous week, when it gave away three tries to a limited Scottish team.

In the event the French proved just as generous for most of the game. And as the scoreline ebbed and flowed so did the rival songs.

Before the last few minutes, when the stadium became too tense for singing, it was a draw between The Fields of Athenryand Allez Les Bleus. Indeed, the first Six Nations match in the Aviva lived up to all the hype in everything except – for the home supporters – the result.

In that respect it was a case of new stadium, old story. The Irish played heroically, and were assailing the French line as the final whistle blew. But the French had tightened up their defence when it really mattered. In the closing minutes, to borrow a line from José Mourinho, they parked their bus (still Cavan-registered) in front of goal and held out for a narrow win.