Four minutes and three touches that cost France


RUGBY ANALYST:WITH THE score standing at 8-7 France were still very much in it. There were five minutes remaining and off trotted Dimitri Yachvili, the French scrumhalf and de facto leader. In his place arrived Jean-Marc Doussain. With less than five minutes remaining of the Rugby World Cup final and with one point in the game I found myself asking, who is Doussain?

Immediately after asking myself that question I followed it with: “What in God’s name are you doing, Marc Lievremont?”

A question many have been asking over the past while. Was Yachvili injured? I’ve rewatched the minutes leading up to the substitution and although tired he certainly wasn’t injured so this, unbelievably, was a tactical substitution!

Doussain touched the ball a total of three times when he came on. The first was a put-in at a French scrum (75 minutes 47 seconds), the second touch was the subsequent passing of the ball from that scrum (75 minutes 53 seconds). Moments later came his third touch. France were on the All Black 10-metre line, mounting pressure on to an extremely worried home side. Who knows what might have happened next, or if Craig Joubert had finally opened his eyes to the breakdown laws? Unfortunately we’ll never find out as Doussain’s third touch was to knock on at the breakdown – All Black scrum and that was it as France would not touch the ball again.

In fact the last French touch was from a 20-year-old earning his first cap for his country playing at scrumhalf having replaced their main leader, Yachvili, in the RWC final.

To that point France had been in the ascendancy when Aurelien Rougerie smashed his way through Conrad Smith’s tackle and powered through Sonny Bill Williams’ effort before Stephen Donald pulled him down. Rougerie had made 20 metres with less than four minutes remaining and bounced three monsters out of the way.

The ball placement was crucial and with Rougerie it was perfect. The previous score, or more of breakdowns, had New Zealand living on the edge and as I pointed out last Monday, highlighting Jerome Kaino’s effort. Kaino was part of the tackle then immediately contested for the ball before looking up at Joubert and throwing the ball forward to produce that French scrum for Doussain. It was outrageous from Kaino; more was to follow.

When Rougerie placed the ball his centre partner Maxime Mermoz arrived but didn’t enter the ruck, instead electing to pillar. This made no difference to Richie McCaw who from that previous scrum had tracked back, corner flagging, anticipating Rougeries’s powerful run. Crucially he arrived before Thierry Dusautoir – open season!

What McCaw did next was sensational. He did not come through the gate, which would have forced him into the heart of the breakdown and reduced his effectiveness. He needed to get that ball or stop France from recycling. So he came in at an angle and tackled Mermoz like William “The Refrigerator” Perry was wont to do at the scrimmage in American Football; clearly an illegal move. In doing so he drove Mermoz back on to the placed ball just when Doussain was looking to pick. Mermoz landed and Doussain knocked on for the last time.

This breakdown gets even better. Rougerie, fired up, wasn’t happy with the turnover, especially due to his brilliant run and drove back into contact totally committed, low and hard. It has been highlighted all week that at this stage there was contact with McCaw’s eye, which is unforgivable.

Although I support zero tolerance with any form of facial interference there is no way Rougerie intended it as he was unsighted as to McCaw’s body position and removed immediately. Either way, Joubert blew his whistle and gave New Zealand the ball for a scrum. They never gave it back.

The chain of events in those 30 seconds or so has huge repercussions for our game with the obvious penalties conceded. The now highlighted “eye-gouging” that has overshadowed the penalties. But more importantly I wonder would Declan Kidney expose himself, and indeed the fortunes of the Irish team, to an outhalf in the number nine slot with four-plus minutes remaining in the RWC final; or at any stage. If not then why not?

As McCaw lifted the trophy I continued to wonder who is this guy Doussain? Then it came to me, Friday night, February 11th of this year in Dubarry Park, Athlone. Ireland Under-20s were beaten badly that night and Doussain was a big player for the French. I remember watching him and contrasting him with Felipe Contepomi, both stocky, strong in the core and very comfortable in traffic.

Surrounding him were some brutish French forwards but he still looked big. Extraordinarily, he did the damage in Dubarry Park while in the number 10 shirt. How did he make it from Dubarry Park in February at outhalf for France Under-20s to the RWC final at scrumhalf? My thesis gives rise to an obvious question. Do we have talent at under-20 level that can be nurtured into internationals far quicker than is customary, or is Lievremont completely crazy?

Last Monday I forwarded my team of the tournament. I decided to pick the 15 players most likely to beat New Zealand, therefore excluding the All Blacks. I chose also to ignore brilliant RWC contributors such as Samoan hooker Mahonri Schwalger or their scrumhalf Kahn Fotuali’i. Indeed every nation had talent, and much of it youthful such as Welsh number eight Toby Faletau. My team was made up of grizzly warriors up front and lots of excitement out back. I would have opted for Berrick Barnes at 10 but as he has played almost no rugby I left him out.

That said, it is the Australian winger James O’Connor that links me to Doussain. O’Connor has everything and is without doubt a special player, so much so he has amassed over 30 caps at 21 years of age. But he is no physical freak of nature like a young Jonah Lomu or George North of Wales; he is raw technique and talent. What therefore can we do in Ireland to maximise the talent that comes our way and find the balance between youth and experience? This weekend we will begin that journey where unrecognisable names to the public will be on show in the RaboDirect PRO 12.

As the weeks tick by leaving RWC 2011 behind us I will be looking at young professionals who may not have the physique but certainly have the technique of those All Black World Cup winners – such as Munster’s Peter O’Mahony or Leinster’s Dominic Ryan and wonder is there an immediate future in green for them?

As for Lievremont, what a call with four minutes of his international career remaining; “Go on Doussain, get out there and win the RWC.”