Sunday 26 February 2017

Ireland offer a glimpse of bright future

FRANCE 19
IRELAND 12

David Kelly

David Kelly

For so long, this was a night which promised to follow a depressingly familiar pattern of darkest history.

Ultimately, it was a night that ended by offering a tantalising enough glimpse of a brighter future.

That both these circumstances prevailed should cause equal levels of concern.

For, as vexatious as it was to see Ireland cough and splutter away so much first-ball for a second successive week, it was doubly frustrating to file out of the Chaban Delmas knowing they could have won the damned thing.

Against a side inordinately better than the Scots, that would have been some boon. But particularly so because it would have arrived on soil where Irish international hopes have foundered against the hosts in every year bar one since 1972.

Having so disdainfully afforded France a rollercoaster ride for the opening 25 minutes or so, Ireland were equally generous in tossing away two late chances to at least secure a draw, subsiding at both scrum and lineout in the final, frantic denouement.

"It's not about me," Declan Kidney offers when reflecting on the fateful final passage of play which arguably arrived too late to offset a slipshod opening half-hour. "It's about the players and they'll be disappointed with that. I believe it's in our own hands to fix these things. At least we were getting into the right positions in the second half. What we need to do now is convert."

It will not have escaped Kidney's notice that Ireland's resourceful comeback didn't really take hold until the arrival of the cavalry -- particularly seasonal debutants Jamie Heaslip and Paul O'Connell, the latter synchronising beautifully with his excellent Munster colleague Ronan O'Gara.

Admittedly, before then Ireland had begun the second half as they had finished the last few minutes of the first, in more control of the ball which in the first half, like at Murrayfield, they just gifted to the opposition.

Similarities

It didn't take a genius to work out the similarities to last week's shoddy opening.

"We should have hung on to the ball better," Kidney conceded. "We spilled about three balls in the first half, three times we had possession and we gave it back to them by just spilling it.

"So if you do that, then that probably means you're going to be without the ball for the next two minutes. Multiply that out, it's six minutes. And so that puts the defence under more pressure."

A creaking set-piece hardly helped but when Ireland settled and retained possession, they looked like a different team.

Then France, after a storming opening 25 minutes, seemed paralysed between the loss through injury of Maxim Mermoz in the 25th minute and the arrival of his enigmatic namesake Medard 40 minutes later.

Their exhaustion in the mid-period, and the opposition's renewed vigour, will encourage Ireland's fitness staff.

For Kidney, he will arguably wake up this morning with less headaches about his World Cup conundrum than before, albeit he argued to the contrary, perhaps a reference to Conor Murray's outstanding debut from the bench, or indeed Luke Fitzgerald's recurring inability to confirm his place on that World Cup plane.

Ultimately, plain and simple anger at losing a game his side could have won informed his reaction.

"We've talked about playing the matches to win the matches," he said. "I think too much of the players to just accept it. We know we need to improve from game to game and that's what we need to do after next week."

The wide vacillation in Irish performance was staggering to behold but then it is something about the blue jersey that so often turns the green-clad bodies to jelly.

How else to explain Donncha O'Callaghan's surreal wrap-around attempt with Eoin Reddan, or O'Gara's inane grubber, both in the first half as the Irish wilted?

Mercifully, aside from familiar assassin Vincent Clerc's try from Alexis Palisson's superb off-load -- his eighth in as many matches against the country -- Ireland may have been wilting but their stretched, stern defensive system never imploded. France were 13-0 when the departure of Mermoz allowed the ponderous David Skrela to switch to out-half and, until Medard's hip-swinging arrival, Ireland outscored the French 12-0.

One could quibble that perhaps Ireland may have gone for the jugular on the hour, opting for a difficult O'Gara attempt at goal from out wide on the left when perhaps a second bite of the maul may have done for the visibly exhausted French.

Instead, a sneaky flick of the boot from the masterful general Dimitri Yachvili and another of the five infringements at scrum-time pushed France seven clear, from which position they clung on gleefully as they counted down to their victorious World Cup send-off.

Kidney, relatively unconcerned about knocks to Rob Kearney (groin) and Mike Ross (calf), is also not too concerned about the impact of losing these games -- not yet anyway.

"Not really," he shrugged. "We'd be a bit annoyed, but we know what we're about. You'd like to win, but then if we had won the two you'd be asking me are we getting over-confident.

"We're not that far away. We're behind because we lost two matches. Last week we lost, we conceded a score with three minutes to go. Tonight we probably had two opportunities in the last five minutes to get a score and we didn't manage to take them to get a draw.

Damage

"But we did a lot of damage to ourselves in the first half of both matches. At this level, you try and win matches. That's what we try and do and then you measure yourself result-wise and performance-wise."

Kidney's selection conundrum will also test his mental resolve as he continues to balance the collective preparation with the compilation of those all-important list of 30 names.

"That's part and parcel of it," he admitted. "We'd be in a far worse situation if individuals were playing poorly. Individually I can't fault our fellas. You can't defend the way we have defended in the last two matches without attitude.

"Our attitude is excellent and that is the one thing you cannot coach. We're bringing that in bucketfuls, but I just know our execution can get better.

"On an individual basis, some lads played very well. That's what I can't lose sight of. Is it easier? It's easier to the extent that there are more fellas putting their hands up and yet it's that bit more difficult."

With France pitching up in Enfield today for Saturday's return clash, Ireland's difficulty needs to be translated into opportunity soon.

France -- D Traille (M Medard 64); V Clerc, D Marty, M Mermoz (D Skrela 26), A Palisson; F Trinh Duc, D Yachvili (M Parra 76); S Marconnet (J-B Poux 54), D Szarzewski (G Guirado 54), L Ducalcon, J Pierre, R Millo Chluski (L Nallet 58), T Dusautoir (Capt), I Harinordoquy (J Bonnaire 65), R Lakafia.

Ireland -- R Kearney (F Jones 47); A Trimble (F McFadden 66), K Earls, P Wallace, L Fitzgerald; R O'Gara, E Reddan (C Murray 60); C Healy (T Buckley 51), R Best (J Flannery 60), M Ross (C Healy 69), D O'Callaghan, L Cullen (Capt) (P O'Connell 50), D Ryan, S O'Brien, D Leamy (J Heaslip 51).

Ref -- S Walsh (Australia).

Irish Independent

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