Vincent Hogan: A bitter pill to swallow
Published 14/02/2011 | 05:00
The day is just a smear of regret as Jamie Heaslip slips into a 'mixed zone' over-run with Frenchmen.
Marc Lievremont has despatched everyone bar the team physio down into this tomb to explain how they rode the pendulum of a manic contest. In the press room, he's been talking about moments of "absolute panic", of imploring his team "not to be idiots" as the clock ran down.
Damning us with faint praise, you might say, until -- unsolicited -- he drew a hobnail boot back, like the catch on a revolver, and released it in Ireland's direction.
Someone spills the beans to Jamie. Five out of 10, he said. That's how pitifully Lievremont rated the French performance. Salt in an open wound.
"I don't think it really matters," sighs an unimpressed Heaslip. "They won. They can win a Grand Slam, we can't. But I think anyone looking at that video, we've exposed a lot. Ye guys (media) all hype them up, thinking they're the dog's b****ks. Well, I don't think they are."
An epic Test game has petered out just short of a fairytale Irish rescue. Little questions sting. What if Rory Best hadn't thrown long? What if Sean Cronin hadn't fumbled? Damn, come to think of it, never mind those closing flurries. What if Ireland had not spent almost an hour unwrapping gifts for Morgan Parra?
The French are reliable in so many ways, not least their susceptibility to hubris. They consider percentages vulgar, eschewing the safe option as a dullard's refuge.
Ireland opened in a blaze of gorgeous running, but France had ridden the storm by the time Clement Poitrenaud took possession deep inside his own '22'. There were four minutes on the clock and Clement could not help himself. He ran.
It was like tossing the deeds of the family home on a poker table. Fergus McFadden hit him like a dump-truck and, from the ensuing ruck, the winger was over for his first international try.
Surprised by the generosity of the gift Fergus? "No, that's the French," he smiles as if describing a scatty grand aunt. "You need to expect the unexpected with them."
But maybe there's the rub. Ireland did all of that and more, their set-piece confounding the doomsayers. One Sunday writer had lamented the "arthritic look to the line-out" yesterday. The scrum was, we all understood, a listed building. Yet, the carnage never materialised.
On the contrary, they played the more beautiful rugby, scored three tries to one and, somehow, left it behind them. As prop Mike Ross put it: "One thing to be beaten by a team, it's another to be beaten by yourselves." Two pieces of arithmetic now jump off the match stats page.
Ball won in opponents' '22': Ireland 44; France 7. Total errors made: Ireland 17; France 9. Story of a wasted opportunity.
Heaslip fronts up to the figures. "I think it's always the same with France," he says. "I don't think there's much in the sides really. We've got a very good team and I think we're on the cusp of playing probably the best rugby that I've been involved in anyway.
"But they just show how clinical they can be. You make a mistake, they've got some brilliant kickers, they'll take the three points. They keep the scoreboard ticking over. Then they make one line-break and score a try.
"On top of that, they didn't let many penalties away."
He is asked if the error count maybe points to a team simply over-stretching itself and the question leaves him unimpressed.
"No, we're still scoring tries," says the Leinster No 8. "We've always scored tries. I can only speak for myself when I say there's no lack of belief in the team, no lack of confidence. We've an exceptionally good group of players in Ireland.
"And I think we were clinical. The first two times we got in their '22', we scored. When we held onto the ball, we posed a lot of problems. Then again, we turned it over a lot of times very easily. But one of the main reasons we're staying around is I think we're on the verge of doing something great and playing some unbelievable rugby. Which I think we're doing. It's just at times we give teams easy opportunities to take scores and that can be frustrating.
"We have to marshal ourselves more so than anything else."
Four Parra penalties had France 12-10 in front on the cusp of half-time when Tomas O'Leary dived over under a human duvet made up of French props, Nicolas Mas and Thomas Domingo. It required the TV umpire's imprimatur to confirm there had been no double-movement and the French went to tea with much to ponder.
Yet, Parra kicked them level after another act of Irish carelessness and, no sooner had we begun chortling at Lievremont's eccentric decision to replace the dead-eyed scrum-half with Dimitri Yachvili than his team struck with a stake to the heart.
Aurelien Rougerie had been their best back all day and, on 55 minutes, shunted Gordon D'Arcy aside like a papier mache model and released Maxime Medard for a try. Yachvili, the pup, converted.
He soon added a penalty and, at 15-25 adrift, Ireland looked to be in the temple of the doomed now. They just didn't know it.
Ronan O'Gara pinged a beautiful touch deep inside the French '22' and Ireland stole the line-out. From there, they just eased through the phases until O'Gara's attempted grubber popped into David Wallace's hands and he put Heaslip in at the corner. O'Gara's convert bounced in off a post, sending the stadium mental.
Logic had left the building now. Sacre bleu, on 75 minutes, France were penalised for an illegal scrum and, soon, Ireland had a line-out maybe 12 yards from the line. Best, inexplicably, threw long and his delivery arched over everyone. The French bolted down the field, Ireland bolted back up again.
And so came the moment of "absolute panic" that Lievremont would allude to.
Cronin spilled just yards from the French line and, as the scrum engaged, none of the pre-match certainties now applied. Ross talked of the front-row hoping to put pressure on their tight-head to give Eoin Reddan a run at Imanol Harinordoquy. It never materialised.
"Just didn't execute it well," he said and Dave Pearson agreed. Penalty France. Game over.
"Two minutes to go, we're on their line and a knock-on," sighs Heaslip, shaking his head. "Now you can't blame a guy for knocking the ball on. Everyone's trying, you're not going to do that on purpose. Ah ... "
McFadden shares the sense of waste.
"Pretty quiet changing-room," he tells us. "Everyone's gutted, because the game was there for the taking. Discipline was clearly a factor. We scored three tries, they scored one. But they kept chipping away at the scoreboard because of our indiscipline in our own half.
"Eighteen points from penalties? Probably tells a story."
Ross tells us he's "probably the most knackered I've ever been after a game." Yet, the scrum has survived. All that bad feeling about what Domingo, William Servat and Mas might inflict upon them never found physical expression.
"It was our errors that undid us," he says of only his second international cap. "The scrum is a work in progress. You saw what the French scrum did to the Scottish last week, you saw what it did to the Australians, even the Argentinians in the Autumn Internationals. This is only our second game together as a pack; I'm confident we'll keep improving.
"Our try count was superior, but they kept chipping away at the scoreboard because of what we did. Fair play to France, they forced mistakes, but there were a lot of things that were in our control.
"We just have to look at ourselves. I feel we're going in the right direction. Scoring three tries against France isn't a bad accomplishment."
Just a pity carelessness rendered it futile.