Irish ambition, discipline and defence in perfect harmony
Rugby Ireland v France: Ireland 30 France 21IT’S ONLY one game, it’s only a start, there are four games to go and the performance was not without its imperfections. Yet given the quality of the French display, this was a stunning start to the championship for Ireland and could represent a landmark win.
As a game, it was probably the best so far at Croke Park. Sure, the rout of England two years ago was the day of days and, in its sheer scale and sense of occasion, would take some beating. But as a contest, this surpassed even that encounter. You couldn’t take your eyes off it.
For France turned up, no doubt about it. Indeed, let’s be honest about it: in a wonderfully fluid contest which ebbed and flowed throughout, until Ireland put the game to bed with about two minutes to go, there were plenty of spells when France had the upper hand and looked set to continue their dominance of this fixture.
Rediscovering the spirit of French rugby, Les Bleus rarely looked ruffled and were quickly into their adventurous stride. Admittedly they were often invited to do so by Ireland’s kicking, but the ever-menacing Maxime Medard and his Toulouse kindred spirit Clement Poitrenaud counter-attacked freely, in tandem with Julien Malzieu, and all their team-mates were in the mood.
Ireland couldn’t drop their guard for a second. A quick throw by Medard infield to Poitrenaud and one of several Sebastien Chabal rumbles set the tone and had the French fans in full voice.
There was an inevitability about them drawing first blood with a wonderful, sweeping score, instigated by Florian Fritz crashing through Ronan O’Gara, given menace by Medard’s deft chip up the touchline, Fulgence Ouedraogo’s gather and link with Yannick Jauzion and finished off by Imanol Harinordoquy after perfect passes by Chabal and Malzieu.
No doubt Les Kiss will find some flaws in the Irish defending, but most teams would have struggled to prevent that try.
Ultimately, there were many factors in Ireland’s ability to respond then and to other moments of potential crisis, primarily their ambition and clinical finishing.
The setpieces were excellent. John Hayes and co locked the scrum impressively for Jamie Heaslip to charge impressively off the base at the soft Lionel Beauxis channel. The quality of their lineout ball – with Jerry Flannery’s accurate darts and Paul O’Connell masterful in the air – was significantly better. Tellingly, all three tries emanated from Irish line-outs, the first two with moves that could have come straight off the training ground.
Their defending was top-class, especially when scrambling back after French line-breaks, epitomised by Tommy Bowe catching Chabal from behind after his searing burst before half-time.
In the final analysis, too, Irish handling was more precise, and France let Ireland off the hook on a number of occasions with some surprising handling errors: you think of Thierry Dusautoir’s knock-on from the recycle after that Chabal rumble.
But just as critical was their discipline when set against that of les bleus. As significant as any of the 10 penalties France conceded were the ones against Dimitri Szarzewski for going to ground straight after that first try for O’Gara’s second three-pointer, and Cedric Heymans not releasing for the match-clinching penalty.
The French will feel aggrieved at the 10-2 penalty count (they did have three indirect frees as well), and at having to wait 76 minutes for their first full penalty. Munster and Leinster have been on the wrong end of most penalty counts when Mr Owens has been in charge, but they did benefit from their familiarity with his style, particularly his severity with players not releasing or going off their feet in the tackle.
In this, too, as coach Marc Lievremont repeatedly acknowledged while masking his sense of grievance, the French were authors of the downfall. At times they looked like they could have been in a swimming competition.
To put this stunning win in perspective, not alone did it end a run of seven straight losses against Ireland’s bete noire and represent a fourth win in the last 27 meetings, it was their biggest win in the fixture since 1975 and the first time in 100 years Ireland have scored three tries at home against France. Ye Gods.
And the Six Nations will do well to throw up five tries in one match as good as those last Saturday and, just like that brace by France, nothing underlined the quality of this performance more than those three Irish tries.
When Bowe came from deep behind a decoy shield off a shortened lineout, at last we had the all-too-rare sight of the outstanding Rob Kearney hitting the line, and his offload and Bowe’s support run gave the move the impetus from which Heaslip made his stunning finish through the middle.
That was the high point of a wondrous display by the number eight, but there were many big plays, right up to when he earned the last penalty after Luke Fitzgerald put in a flying tackle on Heymans.
The flaw in Ireland’s performance was undoubtedly their kicking, but to O’Gara’s immense credit he took the ball to the line and distributed superbly, in particular when Brian O’Driscoll steamed onto his pass to beat Beauxis on the outside and step inside Malzieu. He’s been waiting for a pass like that with Leinster for some time. It was vintage O’Driscoll, and the high point of a superb all-round performance, punctuated by as fine a display of outside centre defending as this ground will see.
Credit to his leadership, too, after France countered the length of the field for Medard’s try and a second Beauxis drop goal to put the game back into the melting pot, when he took on the responsibility to drill a raking touchfinder.
It was from that kick that Heaslip’s pressure on Beauxis and the pack’s rumbling led to Gordon D’Arcy exorcising the pain of almost a year’s absence to score with that remarkable footwork and strength of his.
You could hardly have scripted it. That just made the feel good factor even better.
SCORING SEQUENCE: 3 mins: O’Gara pen 3-0; 15: Harinordoquy try, Beauxis con 3-7; 17: O’Gara pen 6-7; 33: Heaslip try, O’Gara con 13-7; 40+2: Beauxis drop goal 13-10; (half-time 13-10); 43: O’Driscoll try, O’Gara con 20-10; 50: Medard try 20-15; 53: Beauxis drop goal 20-18; 66: D’Arcy try, O’Gara con 27-18; 76: Beauxis pen 27-21; 78: O’Gara pen 30-21.
IRELAND: R Kearney (Leinster); T Bowe (Ospreys), B O’Driscoll (Leinster, capt), P Wallace (Ulster), L Fitzgerald (Leinster); R O’Gara (Munster), T O’Leary (Munster); M Horan (Munster), J Flannery (Munster), J Hayes (Munster), D O’Callaghan (Munster), P O’Connell (Munster), S Ferris (Ulster), D Wallace (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster). Replacements: G D’Arcy (Leinster) for P Wallace (29-35, 62 mins), R Best (Ulster) for Flannery (50 mins), D Leamy (Munster) for Ferris (73 mins), G Murphy (Leicester) for Kearney (76 mins), T Court (Ulster), M O’Kelly (Leinster), P Stringer (Munster).
FRANCE: C Poitrenaud (Toulouse); J Malzieu (Clermont-Auvergne), F Fritz, Y Jauzion, M Medard (all Toulouse); L Beauxis (Stade Francais), S Tillous-Borde (Castres); L Faure (Sale), D Szarzewski (Stade Francais), B Lecouls (Toulouse), S Chabal (Sale), L Nallet (Castres, capt), T Dusautoir (Toulouse), F Ouedraogo (Montpellier), I Harinordoquy (Biarritz). Replacements: N Mas (Perpignan) for Lecouls (half-time), B Kayser (Leicester) for Szarzewski (59 mins), R Millo-Chluski (Toulouse) for Chabal (62 mins), M Parra (Bourgoin) for Tillous-Borde (68 mins), L Picamoles (Montpellier) for Harinordoquy (71 mins), C Heymans (Toulouse) for Poitrenaud (73 mins), B Baby (Clermont-Auvergne) for Fritz (78 mins).
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales).