Sport Six Nations

Monday 15 September 2014

Just like the Grand Slam, the inches make all the difference

Published 16/03/2014 | 10:55

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ireland v france brian o'driscoll  Picture Gerry mooney
Brian O'Driscoll celebrates Photo: Gerry Mooney

Stephen Jones unwittingly etched his name in Irish sporting folklore in 2009. He now has French captain Pascal Pape for company.

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In Cardiff five years ago there was a huge collective intake as the Welsh out-half’s kick fell just short in the Grand Slam finale. This time around we had time to anguish over a TMO decision to ensure that Damien Chouly’s dramatic touchdown would not stand because of a forward pass from his teammate.

“It definitely drifts forward. Does it leaves his hands forward or is it flat and then drift forward?” Steve Walsh enquired. If the Kiwi whistler was looking to become the most disliked referee since Martin Hansson and the Henry handball incident, he was going about it in the perfect manner.

Gareth Simmonds carefully pondered, as if adding playing to the gallery before correctly calling it forward,.  Ireland held out for another 60 seconds and a second Six Nations was claimed.

For a player of Pape's calibre, it was poor execution of a simple pass with Chouly in acres of space. It came however at the end of 80 pulsating, draining minutes of action where bodies were creaking and the minds tiring. It's significance, like Jones' fateful kick, is multiplied as it was the last meaningful moment of action in the game.

France lost by two points. They beat England and Scotland by the same margin. Ireland’s solitary defeat to England was by a penalty kick. In a Six Nations that was as competitive at the business end as we have ever seen, Joe Schmidt’s keen eye for detail was a huge factor.

With an attacking style of play instilled at Clermont and Leinster, it is expected that Ireland will reach a similar level on the front foot. That will come in time, but an astute coach recognises you walk before you can run. A solid defensive platform is essential before strategic attacks are unleashed and in this regard Schmidt has really impressed, along with John Plumtree.

Schmidt’s side conceded the fewest penalties of all six sides in the competition and their work at the breakdown was impeccable from start to finish, turning over the opposition time and time again. Ireland conceded just 49 points in five matches. To put that into perspective, in Six Nations history, only England have shipped fewer in a season. The very season they went onto claim the World Cup.

It’s clear that getting the basics right are fundamental within the camp. Paul O’Connell spoke of the first day with new management and players being sent off with their laptops to soak in tailored information. The marker was set right from the outset. You earn your luck.

Stuart Lancaster and his English charges can rightly lament what might have been over the coming days. Level on points with the men in green, they scored just two tries less than Ireland, ultimately the points difference between the two. Ireland will know that bitter pill too well from 2007, so sympathy may well be in short supply.

Jean-Marc Doussain missed a glorious opportunity with less than 10 minutes on the clock to kick the hosts into the lead. With two minutes left on the clock, Brice Dulin failed to find touch with a penalty that would have left the French in the Irish 22 and in prime position for at a drop-goal, a particular strength of Doussain. It simply wasn’t to be.

Back in November, Ryan Crotty slipped in at the death to break Irish hearts and deny a first ever win over the All Blacks. Post mortems focused on an uncharacteristic miss from Jonathan Sexton late on that would most likely have been enough to seal victory.

In Paris too Sexton was not at his best from the tee - he was outstanding in every other facet of his game with two tries, perfect game management and courageous defending before Mathieu Bastareaud cut short his involvement – but those fateful few inches forward from Pape made that irrelevant.

The inches really do make all the difference.

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