No rancour this time in Stade de France


Supporters had few consoling stories as Ireland were blown away by French class

THERE WAS no rancour in the air this time as they spilled out into the sub-zero night in Saint Denis, a Grand Slam lighter and their revenge deferred. No diplomatic incidents. No sense of justice denied. Not even a smidgen of righteous indignation as a balm for their wounds. They’d seen the ashes of Ireland’s 12-match unbeaten run scattered to the four corners of the Stade de France. They’d watched the hosts make a spectacle of their cold dismantling of the Irish game and push their record of home supremacy on another year. For the Irish fans, it was hard to muster much bitterness.

“I thought the French defence was just fantastic,” said Larry Flanagan from Moate, Co Westmeath, afterwards. “We just weren’t good enough, I guess. It was a terrible pity that D’Arcy didn’t get that first try when he kicked ahead. That would have given us momentum. But we weren’t good enough.”

It was one of those nights. By half time, with 14 points between the sides, the obituarists in the press box were already at work, and you could sense that the fans were losing hope as well. They say Paris is a difficult place to visit. Even before the clock got going, it struck Flanagan why that might be, when a fairly muted rendition of Ireland’s Call gave way to the lusty belt of the French national anthem. “Suddenly the Marseillaise comes, and it really is awesome. I was just looking at the Irish team there and I got to thinking, they would really feel intimidated starting off. But that’s the way it goes. It’s just so difficult to win here.”

It didn’t help much that the Irish were scattered in small pockets across the stadium, a green archipelago in the blue sea, which meant that for all their efforts, they were out-sung and out-yelled by the home crowd for the night.

“There was a lot more atmosphere last November I thought,” said Tina Harpur, originally from Wexford but living in Paris. “You couldn’t spot them,” her brother Ruairí added. “Okay, I know with the cold everybody covers up a bit. But you couldn’t hear them. Every time they tried to start something, the French came in and blew ’em out of it with the band.”

On the pitch, the Irish players must have felt the same way. The French were relentless, and any hope that the game could turn in the second half soon came to nothing. “We were outclassed by a better team,” said Ruairí Harpur. “The French defence was outstanding. Up front, hard tackling, very physical. And the Irish just couldn’t compete.

“I think the French had rehearsed all their patterns against Ireland. We tried to play the same as we have played for the last two to three years and as a result we got caught out.”

For some of the Irish, there was nothing for it, towards the end, but to sit back and admire their own team being unravelled.

“It’s great the way the French are able to come from their own 22 and just march up the field. They seem to do it every year,” said Barry Whelan, from Castleknock in Dublin.

“We were a bit unlucky at the start that we didn’t score. It might have been a different story. D’Arcy had a good try chance. It could all have panned out differently if we’d taken some chances.

“France played well,” Ciarán O’Connell, from Dublin, cut in. “They deserved their win. But we should have played an awful lot better.”

As for the French, embarrassed and contrite after their win in the soccer in November, there was the satisfaction of putting all that to bed and asserting themselves so thoroughly that by the end few were keeping too close an eye on the scoreboard. Philippe Dumaz and Stéphane Bandot had travelled from Chamonix in the Alps for their first international, and had the grace to step lightly over raw wounds.

“It was very important that we scored first. If the Irish had scored in the first 10 minutes, it would have changed the match,” said Dumaz.

Bandot nodded in agreement, though he could only go so far in humouring us. “I thought Ireland were strong,” he said. “But the French were much stronger.”