Losing another world-class captain is just simply cruel

 

ON RUGBY:Once again Ireland were given the sharp end of the stick from the match-day officials, a point conceded
by the neutral BBC team of Eddie Butler, Brian Moore and Jonathan Davies, writes  GERRY THORNLEY

IT’S A funny thing about draws in rugby, isn’t it? Almost more than any other sport, it almost always leaves everyone feeling a little empty or deflated. Within moments of an inspiring and demanding rendition of La Marseillaise, the full-time whistle was greeted with an anti-climactic hush.

L’Equipe’sfront page, which on Sunday morning had spoken of the third leg of a putative Grand Chelem, yesterday lamented that the grand prize had eluded them, though at least there was the consolation of having the title within their own grasp. For Ireland, there wasn’t even that consolation prize on offer any more.

Whereas a win would have elevated them to second, the draw leaves Ireland fourth and, huge occasions though all Six Nations games are, they are now in something of a no-win scenario at home to the Scots after a trying six-day turnaround. As with the Scots after they went toe to toe with the ultra-physical French, that has been made all the more difficult by Ireland’s scars of battle, notably to Paul O’Connell and Conor Murray.

To lose one world-class Lions captain could be considered unfortunate, but to lose two is simply cruel. Possibly even more so than O’Driscoll, there is no adequate replacement for O’Connell. Watching him put in his typically phenomenal work-rate in the last three games, be it tackles, choke tackles, carries, lineouts, restarts or whatever, the thought occasionally occurred as to how many percentage points Ireland’s forward play would be weakened without him.

Now, we’re about to find out again.

Given the itinerary, Declan Kidney might well have been more disposed towards rotating his personnel slightly this week.

But whether he opts for continuity in perming Donnacha Ryan with Donncha O’Callaghan or the less likely option of bringing in Mike McCarthy, the further enforced change at scrumhalf limits the scope for additional alterations.

For example, Rory Best will now presumably be captain, and while there’s an argument for say, perhaps, starting Peter O’Mahony, the loss of O’Connell’s high work-rate makes it even more imperative to start Stephen Ferris again.

He led the defensive charge more often than not, and led the tackle count with 18, many of them offensive hits beyond the gain line, his contribution to choke tackles and, of course, his late charge down at the end.

Similarly, Seán O’Brien probably had his best defensive outing at openside (though he was still employed as a runner almost exclusively at first receiver), contributing to a couple of choke tackle turnovers and winning a pair of turnovers at the breakdown, one of which led to Tommy Bowe’s second try. One could well understand his disappointment at being hauled off.

As brave as anyone in his defensive duties, and another contributor to the choke tackles, was Jonathan Sexton. He will rue a couple of loose second-half kicks and not going for a drop goal, although he clearly goes into the pocket in the 66th minute when Eoin Reddan goes to Ferris to the right of the ruck.

Yet, an away draw in Paris should not be sneered at, not least as it was achieved with an heroic last stand in the last 10 minutes. France were even slower to bring on their drop goal specialist, but imagine how crestfallen we’d all have been if Lionel Beauxis had landed either of his drop goal attempts to signal a heroic 20-17 defeat for Ireland?

Though it’s just as well Dimitri Yachvili wasn’t picked on the bench. The rainmaster was majestic in scoring two tries and 25 points in his comeback for Biarritz on Saturday.

The draw is, after all, Ireland’s second best result and, offered a draw beforehand, that would undoubtedly have been deemed a good result. It’s also worth noting that, for all the typically fickle modern-day desire for change, Kidney’s decision to retain the same starting line-up was largely vindicated, as it was the starting XV that earned a 17-6 interval lead; Ireland’s biggest half-time lead in Paris ever.

The Irish management ticket have the evidence to show that, throughout much of the last two Six Nations campaigns, they’ve been given the sharp end of the stick from the officials. But after Dave Pearson’s decision not to recommend a red card for Bradley Davies, Wayne Barnes’ wrong call on Stephen Ferris for Leigh Halfpenny’s match-winning penalty on the opening Sunday and Achille Rialli’s decision to wrongly cite Ferris, the normally diplomatic Irish coach lost his cool in admitting he was “disgusted” by last Sunday’s 11-4 penalty count.

“We’ll control what is within our control and hope to God that somebody who is in control on the other side will take a good look at that,” Kidney told RTÉ radio afterwards.

It was clear from his comments that he was particularly annoyed at the manner the French non-carriers were allowed to seal off the ball with their pick-and-go drives, as they did with utter impunity in the drive before the second drop-goal attempt by Beauxis.

Pearson’s performance brought to mind his display when Toulon hosted Munster in last year’s penultimate round of pool matches in the Heineken Cup. There’s little doubt that Pearson should have yellow-carded Cian Healy for obstructing Vincent Clerc with his lazy run, but that apart, in every other questionable decision even the strictly neutral BBC team of Eddie Butler, Brian Moore and Jonathan Davies reckoned Pearson had wrongly sided against Ireland.

O’Connell was equally irked by Pearson’s performance, judging by his post-match on-field interview with BBC, and particularly the scrum penalty when the Irish skipper reckoned France “went early”.

In the 17th minute, Rob Kearney times his follow-up tackle on Francois Trinh-Duc to perfection, his wingers quickly drive on in support and, with O’Connell, Ferris and O’Callaghan following up, they drive over the ball, which is in Murray’s hands when Pearson decrees they have gone off their feet.

Moore disagreed with the indirect penalty given against Murray for not feeding a moving scrum, noted how he missed Parra blocking Andrew Trimble and no sooner had Butler commended Ireland for their good defending when Cian Healy tackles from above the waist than Pearson, at Barnes’ behest, gave a penalty for bringing down a maul which Parra landed to start their second-half comeback.

At the peak of Ireland’s third quarter surge for a win, Moore noted that “Ireland were unlucky there, I thought France were about two yards offside out wide”.

For his part, Davies went back to that move moments later and highlighted Wesley Fofana’s late hit on Sexton. “It’s a penalty in any game, I think, isn’t it?” said Butler.

For the 55 minutes from the 24th to the 79th minutes, Pearson’s penalty count was eight-nil to the home team.

Talk about only refereeing one side!