George Hook: A finale that was meant to be
But Schmidt now faces problem of building a new midfield for 2015 World Cup
Published 17/03/2014 | 02:30
France were better, but Ireland won. Apparently, Philippe Saint-Andre left the stadium in a flaming temper. He was wrong if he was fuming at his players, the Irish players, the referee or the crowd. He was right if he was blaming himself for costing his team a famous and, more importantly, a morale-boosting victory.
The match was a triumph for integrity, empathy, trust and understanding, qualities sadly lacking in the French coach. His monumental error in replacing Maxime Machenaud and Louis Picamoles cost his team the game.
Inexplicably, Jean-Marc Doussain replaced Machenaud, who had been kicking superbly and had assumed the leadership role. Predictably, after his awful game against Scotland, the new scrum-half missed a sitter. It lost the game for France, but worse was to come.
In that final minute, the much-vaunted 6ft 8in Perpignan second-row specialist Sebastien Vahaamahina, who had replaced Picamoles, was held up to give Ireland victory. Were the best ball carrier in Europe on the pitch, he might not have made that mistake.
In contrast, Joe Schmidt has built a team of disciplined performers that trust him implicitly because of his faith in them. Thus the coach risked all by weakening his scrum with the arrival of Jack McGrath and Martin Moore, but the benefits will be seen 18 months hence in the World Cup. That said, the Irish scrum imploded at once, and only incredible defending rooted in self-belief won the day.
Three teams were in contention for the championship on the final day. The ultimate champions surprisingly had the worst functioning half-backs.
England bristled with intent, egged on by Owen Farrell and Danny Care; France looked a different team with Machenaud and Remi Tales. Ireland, conversely, suffered from a poor kicking game by Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray.
Sexton does not look comfortable in his own skin and is now a poster-boy for the IRFU when dealing with players threatening to go to France. One wonders just how much Sexton's experience at Racing played on the minds of Jamie Heaslip or Sean O'Brien when considering new contract offers.
The Murray case is interesting. Rumour has it Simon Zebo is out of favour because his work-rate in practice is not up to scratch. If so, the case of Care is instructive. Stuart Lancaster would not pick the Harlequins scrum-half until he worked harder at his game, particularly his box-kicking.
Kicking apart, Murray's game was outstanding, but his kicking was a liability and he will not withstand the challenge of Eoin Reddan if he does not improve. It would be tragic if the player whose break, dummy and pass made Andrew Trimble's try should fail because of an easily fixable problem.
Saint-Andre got the selection right for the final game. He restored Mathieu Bastareaud to his best position of inside-centre (despite wearing No 13), which allowed the outrageously talented Gael Fickou to prosper outside him. Bastareaud made errors but he was a huge threat and, as Ireland's poor kicking invited the French to counter-attack, it seemed the outrageous pace of their wings and full-back would overwhelm Ireland.
The French had 14 huge forwards in their 23-man squad and it almost paid off. The line-out was secure, bolstered by the accurate throwing of Dimitri Szarzewski, who replaced the hapless Brice Mach, and for the first time in this championship the scrum was comfortable against Ireland's best front-row. Moreover, it was dominant against the reserves.
The result was that Les Blues came forward in waves reminiscent of their best years. However, the damage done by Saint-Andre in the earlier rounds meant that the new outfit struggled to find the continuity that could have embarrassed the visitors.
In contrast Schmidt's attention to detail was evident. Even if his team tried to play too much football, the commitment of every player, from star to bit player, was immense; none more so than Trimble, who epitomised the coach's work ethic. The Ulster wing was light years away from the tentative and unconvincing player on his World Cup appearance against the same opponents on this ground in 2007.
The ever-romantic French awarded the man of the match gong to Brian O'Driscoll, which was a reward for his career rather than his performance in this match.
The thundering collision between Bastareaud and Sexton was evidence of the task the veteran centre faced, but he never wilted.
The outstanding player on the field was Paul O'Connell. After 48 minutes of lung-bursting involvement he was first to the breakdown when O'Driscoll was taken down metres from the line after Trimble had gone the length of the field. His involvement was huge.
Trimble, Devin Toner and Chris Henry could have been relegated to bit players under another coach but they have become integral parts of the team. None more so than Toner, who has gone from a gangling, ineffective ball carrier to a go-to line-out target and all-round strong performer.
The coach answered Denis Leamy's injudicious comments about biased selection in the best arena – on the field.
The big question is where to now, after O'Driscoll? Schmidt mentioned Robbie Henshaw of Connacht and Darren Cave of Ulster, good players both but, as the coach wryly remarked, not likely to fill the great man's boots.
He has another problem. Gordon D'Arcy is also nearing the end of a great career and uncertainty surrounding Luke Marshall because of repeated concussions could mean a relatively inexperienced pairing in the World Cup.
With wing spots covered, we might see Luke Fitzgerald and Tommy Bowe as a partnership, although the Leinster player would need to start delivering on his early promise and become injury-free.
One thing is certain: the coach will deliver a well-prepared team for October 2015. After almost two decades of trying, Ireland need to get beyond the quarter-final.
This championship has shown that there are two other strong European contenders. The Six Nations finished on a glorious high and again showed the southern hemisphere nations that it is the jewel in the crown.
At 5pm on Saturday any one of three countries could have won. England should have won and France could have won but the prize returned to Ireland because the team reduced errors to a minimum and the whole was greater than the sum of the parts.
There was one incalculable, imponderable and perhaps unbelievable reason. In Lawrence, the fatalism of the Arabs was expressed in the phrase "it is written".
For BOD's farewell, maybe it was just meant to be.
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