Monday 5 December 2016

Ireland blow golden chance

Opportunity lost for rare victory on French soil, writes Neil Francis

Published 14/08/2011 | 05:00

The way the presidential election is going it looks like the 'don't knows' are going to win the damn thing. If we need any more oddball candidates maybe Peter de Villiers and Marc Lievremont could put their names forward because they certainly do not know. From Ireland's perspective the news from yesterday was, on balance, pretty good.

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South Africa, who will most likely face Ireland in the quarter-finals in October, were clueless and were well beaten by an Australian side who looked like they are going to time their run to perfection again.

Lievremont's France are just such an unquantifiable prospect at this stage. They played with uncontrolled enthusiasm in the first half and when they were leading 13-0 after Ireland had given another 40 minutes of stultifying mediocrity there was a thumping going a begging, but France lost their rhythm and their tempo; it was like Red Rum pulling up at Becher's Brook with the field beaten.

France didn't so much take their foot off the pedal but got out of the car and just stopped playing -- their coach being the man who initiated the decline.

I've always thought the non-selection of Clement Poitrenaud and Yannick Jauzion were something out of the Jack McMurphy school of selection; their absence will hugely hinder France's ambitions. I do fancy Maxime Mermoz, not that many people would know of his abilities, but he is a serious prospect. He was taken off midway through the first half.

I'm not especially sure that he was injured, he was winking and chatting away and he didn't look as if there was anything seriously wrong with him. So a change needs to be made in the French backline.

Trinduc was playing well and controlling the game, the obvious thing to do was put Maxime Medard in from the bench at full-back and move the pedestrian lollypop man Damian Traille from his position of anonymity and unsurety at full-back and put him in at inside centre.

Lievremont moved the static and completely neutral David Skrella from the bench into out-half and moved his playmaker into first centre, where the pair of them drowned in a sea of mediocrity. They ceded the tactical initiative to Ireland who, to their credit, grabbed it with both hands and played with the sort of surety in the second half that we have not seen from an Irish team playing on French soil.

They came close but just in the end lacked quality out wide (that is to say Brian O'Driscoll was not on the pitch) and Declan Kidney gave new instructions but it just goes to show how important a coaches call can influence a game. De Villiers and Lievremont are two cheeks of the same arse; how much better both France and South Africa would be if neither of them were near their respective national XVs.

Let's get to the meat of the issue here. The whole question of fringe players and experimentation and trying out combinations and bullshit like trying to get one player to play in a couple of positions, this is what I would call inverse relevance and I just don't understand it.

Fringe players don't win championships and trying to see if they can fill a gap just does not make sense. What you do in an early season programme is get your hardcore and your starting XV up and running. The very proof of this pudding came about in the 50th minute when Ireland realised that the game was there to be won and Kidney, the pragmatist that he is, could smell blood and made his changes, realising that this was not about experimentation but about getting an extremely rare win on French soil which would launch Ireland on a momentum train that would be extremely difficult to stop.

It was all encapsulated in the 56th minute. Harinorduquoy, once again sublime in all areas, took a glorious one-handed take at a line-out in mid-field that guided past from the stratosphere took Yachvilli by surprise and he took the ball after the first bounce. The static Skrella took a misplaced pass and was met by a swarm of one, the newly introduced Jamie Heaslip.

The Leinster No 8 drilled him and knocked him back seven metres whereupon Skrella, who correctly just did not want to know about his circumstances, tried to get rid of the ball to someone else on the ground and got pinged.

Ireland at that stage were 13-9 and it begged the question how come Donnacha Ryan or Denis Leamy hadn't done something like that for the previous 55 minutes? O'Gara's kicking, which had been metronomic at that stage, sent the ball over and Ireland were only a point behind and the spiritual renaissance was about to go up another couple of gears.

O'Connell, who had come on five minutes earlier, claimed one of those long kick-offs under adverse circumstances and he took it with about three Frenchmen all over him, used his strength to get up again and then Ireland fortified and, reassured by one of their natural leaders' show of strength and maturity, got in behind him. And they rucked, pushed and bullied their way an additional 15 metres further down the line than they had any reasonable hope to accomplish with an inferior player.

O'Gara, knowing exactly what to do, drilled in a beauty into the corner and France were under pressure again. They had opportunities and Earls' piercing run down the right hand side and tantalising chip and bounce back was agonisingly close to getting a justified draw.

The big scrum which Ireland needed didn't happen and Buckley, as he had been since he transferred onto the tighthead side, got minced by Poux and Ireland's chance was gone.

You can pick the positives out of your arse on that one. That one was about winning on French soil, nothing to do with performances, experimentation or squad rotation. Ireland are zero from two, but now they will be playing their starters and they will win their return game.

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