Saturday 24 March 2018

George Hook: Paris dismantling signals end to Irish honeymoon

Blistering French leave Kidney with some major puzzles to solve, writes George Hook

Never in the history of this championship has an Irish team travelled to Paris in better physical and psychological health.

Winning habit coupled with the experienced gained from years of Heineken Cup competition made a visit to the French capital less overpowering for the Irish team than it was for their predecessors.

The French were out of sight after 30 minutes and Ireland had to play catch up. To win, Declan Kidney knew his team had to survive and dampen French confidence. The surprise was that Ireland matched the helter skelter of their opponents as the game was played at an unbelievable pace. The plan, however, was clear as Ronan O'Gara dinked the ball behind the French and in front of his own players.

For years rugby people wondered what would happen if Gaelic footballers converted to rugby. Professionalism proved a temptation to many young men to follow their fortunes with the oval ball. Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe were beneficiaries, but fielding the high ball has become a feature of the Irish game.

It was 18 minutes before the first scrum arrived but the lack of a defensive scrum, as expected, cost the visitors dear. Wayne Barnes could easily have awarded France a penalty try but William Servat delivered the expected seven points.

Barnes earlier made a dreadful mistake when allowing Jerry Flannery to get off scot free for an awful kick which could have broken Alexis Palisson's leg. Had he been a professional footballer in the Premier League, he would have received a red card and a suspension. Instead he will probably be cited and receive a month's suspension.

Kidney must have despaired at his team's indiscipline. Flannery escaped but Cian Healy did not when he foolishly tugged a shirt. The youngster needs a mentor to calm him and inculcate some concentration. The prop needs to learn the basics of professional football; hold up the scrum and deliver in open play.

The French lineout stuttered at first but it steadied and the flood of possession went France's way. In the first half Ireland were on the edge of humiliation, but the character of the side was magnificent and they stayed alive. It was all the more incomprehensible therefore that on the stroke of half-time they turned down a certain three points in favour of repeated individual thrusts by Tomas O'Leary.

The Cork man seems to have replaced Denis Leamy as the loose cannon in the side.

There have been heavier defeats on the scoreboard in Paris, but the gap between the two sides was as wide as it has ever been in history. Ireland did not have superiority in any position on the field. Even the captain was overshadowed by the much maligned Mathieu Bastareaud.

The Frenchman supposedly was a poor defender, but Brian O'Driscoll constantly broke the defensive line in search of an intercept. He has consistently done so this season and been lucky. Sooner or later his luck is going to run out.

After 48 minutes it was sad to see John Hayes leave the pitch. The tighthead has been a magnificent servant of his country but he could not survive 80 minutes of rugby at this tempo, all the while taking immense punishment at the scrum. The scrum survived largely through the herculean efforts of Jamie Heaslip, who consistently made yards off a retreating set-piece.

There were few bright moments for Ireland but Leo Cullen looks likely to keep Donncha O'Callaghan off the site. The Leinster captain was shamefully treated by Eddie O'Sullivan and Cullen's intelligence and work rate was constantly overlooked for not only O'Callaghan but Mick O'Driscoll, who rode the Munster train to Ireland caps. Hopefully he will now receive the recognition he deserves. This remains a good Irish team. They were simply overwhelmed by a superior force.

Marc Lievremont has sustained criticism for his selection policies over the last two years. He was the first coach in the championship to plan for the Rugby World Cup in 2011. He used 70 players in that time but his team are now as good as any to have graced the blue shirt. They have been close to the world championship crown on four occasions. Lievremont could deliver the elusive title.

The World Cup prospects for Ireland are less certain. A pool defeat by Australia is still likely, which would probably mean an early departure in the quarter-finals at the hands of New Zealand. Kidney will, for the first time in his tenure as coach, come under the microscope.

The probability of no Kearney at full-back and suspension for Flannery could make Twickenham a sticky proposition. With the Grand Slam monkey off his back, the coach will probably start Jonny Sexton against England and tackle the openside problem with Sean O'Brien.

Hayes may well finish his career with 100 caps but it is unfair and cruel to ask him to soldier on much longer.

The injuries will impact not just on Ireland, but on Munster and Leinster. The French game will take great heart from a Gallic Grand Slam. Just like Ireland and Leinster last year, France could cap a great year with a Heineken Cup win in May. In turn, Ireland has to undertake a summer tour to Australia and New Zealand. They will travel with the knowledge that winning on the road is not easy.

The honeymoon is over, albeit after 15 months. It could get worse.

Sunday Independent

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