A blessing in disguise
Published 13/02/2012 | 05:00
YES, it was a farce, a shambles and a travesty. Yes, it is ridiculous that one of the finest stadiums in Europe cannot cater for a bit of ice and that the French Rugby Federation could not have seen this coming despite warnings all week.
Yes, it is unbelievably frustrating for supporters, Irish and French, who had expended significant amounts of time and money to get to Saint Denis and were suited and seated and ready for action, only to get the 'no mas' message with minutes to go.
However, accepting all of the above, there is one unassailable fact regarding Saturday night's 'no-show' at the Stade de France that deserves to be acknowledged -- this cancellation could actually suit Ireland very well.
After the events of the previous weekend's Six Nations opener against Wales, it would be fair to surmise that Ireland's heads were all over the place heading to Paris. Losing a match they should have won, the fact that it was the Welsh, again, the implications of the defeat on their tournament as well as their (World Cup seeding-dependent) world ranking, the late injury doubt over Jonathan Sexton and the whole Stephen Ferris citing fiasco -- that's a whole lot to process in six days.
The spat with the IRB and Six Nations committee over whether Wayne Barnes was correct to award a penalty against Ferris certainly did not help and, while there were plenty of motivational triggers for Ireland to press, the whole build-up was a bit too chaotic.
And the French were waiting. Philippe Saint-Andre and his players were desperate for this game to go ahead. They felt a need to improve upon their opening, rudimentary win over Italy and sensed that Ireland were vulnerable.
If France had gotten off to one of their trademark whirlwind starts, it could have been carnage and, even if they hadn't and Ireland raised their game 15 or 20pc from their efforts against Wales, the French have so much talent they could still have won relatively comfortably.
Two defeats on the bounce would have put serious heat on Declan Kidney and his squad. There are always extra levels of impatience after failed World Cup campaigns, and the fact there has been minimal change to the group that came up short in Wellington reduces the wriggle room in the face of continued failure.
Now, Ireland have the chance to take a breather, regather and build some confidence at home to Italy in two weeks' time.
France know that Ireland will be a tougher proposition with another game and a victory under their belts, which is why they were so keen for the game to be played despite the freezing conditions, and for the refixture to be staged next weekend rather than at the start of March.
The confidence and momentum Ireland would derive from beating Italy is hugely significant. Look at the English. It is hard to think of a weaker England side (possibly the one that lost 17-0 in Lansdowne Road in 1987) than the one Stuart Lancaster is overseeing at present.
It is a team of journeyman plodders and second-rate South Africans with a smattering of quality (Dylan Hartley, Ben Youngs, Ben Foden) and they are playing absolute muck -- as evidenced by the fact that Charlie Hodgson, in his second or third Indian summer, is their main strike weapon from block-downs.
But, they are winning, away from home, and you can see the confidence flow into those English jerseys as a result.
Lancaster was blessed with a friendly fixture list while Ireland were handed the tournament's toughest sides in their first two matches -- now they have a reprieve.
The downside is that Ireland will now have to play four games on the bounce, which will take a heavy physical and mental toll, but the indications are that Kidney would be happy to do that as opposed to the suggested alternative of returning to Paris next weekend.
"We have had three weeks of it now (in camp) and the players had two weeks of Heineken Cup before that," said the Ireland coach. "They were looking forward to getting home Monday and Tuesday so it would be hard to bring them into camp for another week and come back here next weekend. That would be a challenge, but four on the trot would also be a challenge.
"We were focused, we were ready to play a match. If we weren't ready we would not be doing our job, and now we have to do our job too and see what happens next. I need to come up with a plan now so I can tell the players exactly what they are doing."
For some players, that could involve game time with their provinces next weekend to combat the danger of Ireland going into the Italy match undercooked after no rugby for three weeks.
Given the risk of injury, that is a tough call for Kidney, but he is a coach who has always placed a high valuation on game time, as he showed last August. Those four warm-up internationals were unremarkable and inconsequential, result-wise, but there is no doubt they stood to the Irish players when they ran out against Australia a few weeks later.
There is no doubting the disappointment in the Ireland camp at the game not going ahead on Saturday night. Players and management were geared up for a full-on contest and to be denied the opportunity so late on created a massive sense of anti-climax and, as well as expressing the frustration in the Ireland camp, Kidney was typically mindful of their supporters.
"I walked it beforehand and they (icy patches) were getting firmer. The forecast indicated that it wasn't going to get warmer.
"I did think around 5.0 when I went for a walk around town that it didn't seem to be particularly cold but maybe that was just the streets that I was walking on. Forecasts now are pretty accurate and I am sure they will take a look at it.
"It is very disappointing ... (for) all the supporters who had spent hard-earned money to come over and support us, and players who were ready to play a match."
One had to feel sympathy for referee Dave Pearson, having that much responsibility on his shoulders. The previous week, as touch judge, he was involved in a controversial decision which saw the now banned Bradley Davies yellow-carded instead of sent off for a highly dangerous tackle.
On Saturday night, Pearson made a brave call but this time, with the safety issues involved, it was the right call and, although deeply frustrating for everyone present, one that has the potential to give Ireland's Six Nations campaign the boost it has been craving.