Friday 24 November 2017

All's not lost after spirited performance

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

In Rome, we won a game we could have lost. Yesterday, we lost a game we could have won, albeit against much superior opposition. Courtesy of the golden generation, we have all moved on from moral victories of the 'plucky Ireland' variety, so what might have been had Sean Cronin not spilled that final ball will cut deep with this Irish squad. And so it should.

It was an opportunity lost and nobody knows that more than the players. They know they played well, sufficiently well to have eked out the victory we all craved, and yet in the cold light of day they know equally well that when you leak penalties as consistently as we did against goal-kickers of the calibre of Morgan Parra and Dimitri Yachvili, you will pay the ultimate price.

Penalties conceded come as a direct result of pressure by one team leading to indiscipline by the other.

It is very difficult to cope with the former without giving in to the latter so let credit go where it is due to a French team that worked its socks off at key times, especially when momentum appeared to be shifting the other way.

The Irish players will express the requisite level of disappointment and angst, but, equally, they appreciate the relevance of this performance when compared to the limp Italian job.

Resilience

Three tries to one says everything about the depth of this Irish effort and yet we cannot but admire the French for their resilience in a winning performance so very different in its construction to that against the Scots first time out.

Some might suggest it was winning ugly. That would be as unfair as it is untrue. Concentrate instead on a group willing to lay bodies on the line for each other and for their oft-criticised coach in search of success. Not a bad starting place in a World Cup year.

The severity of yesterday's examination is the best preparation France could possibly have got ahead of Twickenham in a fortnight's time. From an Irish perspective, in direct contrast to Rome, there are still many positives to be taken from yesterday.

Players know when they have played well every bit as much as when they have played badly. Yesterday at the Aviva, though on the wrong side of the result, they emerged unquestionably in the black.

But no more than they became a bad team on the decline post-Rome have they become World Cup contenders following this gutsy loss to the reigning Grand Slam champions. The truth, as ever, lies somewhere in between.

Kidney could not have scripted a better opening. The rugby dished up by Ireland in the first five minutes was made in heaven, such was its error-free content.

I cannot recall a more clinical start against the French. It deserved the try it almost got through the ever-willing Luke Fitzgerald, and eventually did through Fergus McFadden.

Scrap

As a statement of intent, the message was clear and unambiguous. This was an Irish side up for the scrap. But so were the French and while kicking penalties might not stir the imagination like crossing the whitewash, the regularity with which the unerring Parra kicked his goals reflected his side's dominance to the break. It made for the no-holds-barred contest we had expected.

In the end, inspired by the extraordinary Imanol Harinordoquy, France got there and on the balance and quality of primary possession, they just about deserved it.

Unlike last week, Kidney won't be grasping at straws. This was an immeasurably better collective performance in which both locks, Donncha O'Callaghan and Paul O'Connell, led from the front. (Indeed quite what bringing on Leo Cullen with 79 minutes and 55 seconds on the clock does for the credibility of the player, his team or the game as a whole escapes me. It sure demeans the value of an international cap.)

Against that, some of the earlier changes, not least at half-back, have raised substantial issues for Murrayfield. Yet again, the impact of Ronan O'Gara was immediate and visible in practical terms.

In the back-row, too, there was enough evidence -- not least from David Wallace -- to suggest that there might be a less than straightforward back-row selection the next day, on the assumption, of course, that Stephen Ferris is declared fit and available to face the Scots.

TOMORROW: Tony Ward on

what next for Declan Kidney

Irish Independent

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