Sunday 23 October 2016

Ireland dig their own grave and offer France renewed life

Published 15/02/2016 | 02:30

Jamie Heaslip shows his disappointment after the defeat against France. Photo: Sportsfile
Jamie Heaslip shows his disappointment after the defeat against France. Photo: Sportsfile

A quiet burial after a most public funeral. Three hours later and the Stade de France is eerily, aptly desolate. Seven groundsmen are lazily gardening upon the exact spot where a French scrum had begun the ending to Ireland's two-year reign as champions of the northern hemisphere.

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Beneath them lie the remains of Ireland's buried title hopes. A curious demise.

We have seen larceny of the most deceitful kind here before, in a different code, a different time; this is a crime scene that feels different, but only because any sense of injustice must be mitigated by the carelessness of the one who has been mugged.

"We're not going to look for excuses," says Devin Toner; shortly after his coach had issued a pile of them.

There was violence committed in the attempt too; more echoes from history.

There has been a lot said about Guy Noves' quaint attempt to re-introduce French flair to the flailing national outfit; this week also marked a decisive shift in his side's aggression; the squad boasted they would "hurt" Ireland. They did, clinically; ruthlessly.

Bodies were strewn across the rain-sodden turf as if this were an impromptu scene from 'M*A*S*H'; Sean O'Brien unwittingly self-harmed and Mike McCarthy was concussed so badly he could not raise himself from the floor unaided.

But the other two casualties were victims of reckless assault, Dave Kearney leaving the field while Jonathan Sexton, yet again brave but at God knows what potentially gruesome cost, was withdrawn before the end.

"That's rugby, deal with it," fumes Tommy O'Donnell. "Good teams don't rely on those margins. We should have put ourselves in a position to win."

Indeed; Ireland should never have been in a position to have so desperately required Sexton's presence to see out this match.

History may remind us to be churlish about assuming anything in this wonderfully contradictory city but for long stretches of this piece, Ireland were the only show in town.


The inquests will be vast and are already thriving; the lack of creativity; Keith Earls' and Simon Zebo's evasion was sorely missed; the recidivist issue of the declining scrum; Ireland's inability to score, or even threaten to, for vast tranches.

What was far more worrying that the chief characteristic of a Joe Schmidt side, the authoritative strut of one of the best-drilled sides in the business, evaporated into a morass of sloppiness and nervous inhibition the longer their slim scoreline advantage remained stubbornly unchanged.

Fatigue will certainly be offered as an excuse but fundamental errors and sloppiness allowed France to threaten a contest far beyond the point when a debate about the winner should have been necessary.

Give a sucker an even break, they say, and Ireland were certainly generous in that regard.

France had picked the wrong front-row and scrum-half yet were allowed the time and space to reverse the selection; hence, they grew stronger as Ireland lagged short of the finish line.

A tired, sloppy Ireland had not done enough to give them the leeway required to stem the inevitable tide. It was almost like a smash-and-grab effort from a home side, if such an oxymoron can be said to exist.

A lot of uncharacteristic flaws are beginning to appear in a side that have earned the pedigree of being able to hide them.

And, just as in the World Cup, when an enormous amount of effort was expended due to the abrasive style deployed by this team, forcing the team to implode a week later, Ireland were ultimately undone here as a result of their exhaustive, poorly rewarded effort against Wales.

There is now a direct relationship between Ireland's inability to maximise their scoring potential and the enervating effects of having to work so hard for so little end product.

It is at once enfeebling and, on the basis of another poor second-half effort, worryingly inhibiting too as players are crumpling beneath the self-inflicted pressures. France remain a poor side, albeit marginally improving, but the philosophy of their coach allows his players to be liberated.

"There was no pressure," the avuncular Noves informs us. "You won't die if you take a chance. They have the will to impose their game and not let Ireland impose their game. It was about having freedom."

With freedom came liberty; cornerstones of French revolution.

"The victory depended on the choices made by the players," he adds. Ireland, in stark contrast, seemed to tighten up; their metronomic mistake-free rugby drowned in the downpour.

"We have to be smarter," insists O'Donnell. "Not scoring any points in the last 50 minutes did us in," sighs Toner. "Not being able to capitalise when we have all the ball."

Defeat now exposes flaws that were previously well-hidden during Ireland's Championship successes before being laid bare in the World Cup quarter-final implosion.

"It's criminal getting down there, then not taking your chances," assesses Andrew Trimble. "We should be a side that backs ourselves whenever we get opportunities and we didn't today.

"A lot of that damage was done in the first half and then that put us under pressure in the second half. We had a decent little lead but in the second half we were under pressure from minute one.

"There were a couple of occasions when we got down there but, really, it was difficult to play a lot of rugby and put them under pressure. They're a big heavy pack and you're trying to shift them around, unfortunately the conditions weren't conducive to doing that.

"So once the game slows down, they can carry and get over the gain-line and, with that momentum, they become a very hard side to deal with.

"But the first half was crucial," he repeats. "And so we were always going to be chasing our tails in the second half.

"France will always have a purple patch. Obviously you don't want that purple patch to last 40 minutes."

Improbably, France are still on for a Grand Slam, Ireland encouraging their nascent renewal. Now Ireland must renew themselves.

Twickenham, another graveyard for sides struggling to re-invent, would not have been their preferred port of call.

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