A SIX Nations Championship game in isolation is an unusual experience. Whether it was the lack of plummeting temperatures or the earlier kick-off that mellowed the atmosphere is open to conjecture, suffice to say that before the game on Sunday it all felt a bit genteel at Stade de France.
If the Parisian crowd expected their sumptuous lunches to be followed by a display of thrilling French rugby, they were roundly disabused of such fancies by a tidal wave of green that smashed into their runners, sometimes 15 to 20 metres behind the gain line.
The sound of feral booing is sweet when you are a visitor to Paris, and Ireland caused French misery with a couple of pieces of opportunism which were significant.
Tommy Bowe’s interception try gave Ireland seven points, but Cian Healy’s appearance at ‘outside centre’ in the France back line stopped a prime attacking opportunity. Only referee Dave Pearson will know how Healy escaped a yellow card, because the prop’s lazy run back to his own side could more properly be described as supremely cynical.
The Irish scrum stood up far better than expected and the line-out provided a platform for the Irish to move their forwards round the corner and make ground.
As things were going so well it would have taken a brave or wise man to remind the jubilant Irish supporters that in reality they ought to have scored more points and that too often the very good things done were undone by simple bad mistakes.
Had you posited this at the time that Ireland seemed rampant you would have been shouted down, but in retrospect the French were let off the hook. They could and probably should have been buried.
Your final view of the Irish performance will depend on how high you set the bar for a side whose players regularly outperform their counterparts in European club competitions.
One view is that given Ireland have won only once in 40 years in Paris, a draw is not a bad result.
You will point to the tremendously brave defensive effort in the final 10 minutes and be relieved that Lionel Beauxis was prevented from making the most of two dropped-goal opportunities in the final throes of the game.
The alternative view is that having deservedly clocked up a 17-6 lead at half-time, the Irish should have had the wherewithal to see out the game. The fact that they failed was not only because of ill discipline in the tackle area, but also by unaccountable unforced errors like drifting into touch when moving the ball wide and missing line-out throws in crucial areas.
The fact is that if you want to be hard on the Irish effort you can point to the 15-minute period in the middle of the second half when they dominated possession and territory.
In particular, they had multiple phases in the French 22 and yet did not fashion any points to add to their half-time total. At no point during this period did either Irish half-back call for controlled driven ball to at least give Jonathan Sexton an attempt at a dropped goal.
From the French it was a stuttering performance during which they showed only glimpses of the dexterity they possess. Ironically, it was during the only period of Irish looseness in open play that they were allowed room to exploit – and Wesley Fofana took full advantage.
It is to Ireland’s credit that the French were not allowed anything other than this single instance of latitude, but it also showed that until the Irish can concentrate for a full 80 minutes, they are vulnerable and in the end they will not win games which should be in their grasp.
The absence of Brian O’Driscoll is something that nobody in the Irish camp wants to make anything of, but he is badly missed when it comes to the critical moments.
Above all, O’Driscoll takes the responsibility to make the play that forces the scoring opportunity or actually makes the score.
For that critical 15-minute period Ireland cried out for some stability and calm counsel. What they got was a tremendously physical and committed effort, but one that was undone by not having commensurate direction.
France cannot now win a Six Nations Grand Slam – and they do not deserve to be in a position to challenge for one.
Their unimpressive first-half display on Sunday, for all the pressure exerted by Ireland, was also the result of players not bothering to do things like sprint when chasing kicks and look when passing the ball wide – a pity because they are capable of so much more.