Irish aspirations blown asunder
Knock-on effects could be calamitous if Paris spills are not eradicated
At the Stade de France
IT'S question time. Are France that good? Are Ireland that far behind? Or was this just one of those Paris days? The answers will become clearer over time, but Ireland's 23-point hammering at a delirious Stade de France was most definitely not part of the grand plan.
There has been plenty of hindsight dogmatism taking place since the final whistle sounded on Saturday evening, but the truth is Ireland ran out in Paris with genuine designs on victory and to see such aspirations blown asunder so emphatically is deeply unsettling.
The Irish players were on their way to a black tie banquet on Saturday night, reportedly to feast on delicacies such as 'cremeux d'avocat,' 'tourteaux a la cive' and 'croustilles de parmesan.' In the circumstances, even such gourmet dishes may have been hard to swallow.
Ireland's progression towards next year's World Cup had been on schedule. The squad was deepening nicely, the game-plan was expanding, while critical areas such as set-pieces and defence were solidifying into bulwarks of dependability. The mixture was bound together by an unbeaten run that had instilled Declan Kidney's side with the confidence and self-belief necessary in the long wind-up to meaningful World Cup achievement, bringing them to a Grand Slam and victory over the World Champions along the way.
And then ... whoosh ... it was gone.
As was said in the build-up, winning in Paris would have represented a massively significant psychological step forward while losing would lodge doubt in the minds. But when defeat was being contemplated beforehand, it was never envisioned as occurring in a manner that was eerily reminiscent of the worst days of the 1980s and 1990s.
France looked to be operating on a different plane last Saturday, particularly in the physical power stakes, with Keith Earls and replacement Paddy Wallace thrown about like American flags at a Muslim demonstration.
France looked the real deal and if coach Marc Lievremont can resist the urge to rotate - particularly at half-back - his team have the potential to be one of France's finest.
Jamie Heaslip looked like the sole Irishman the French would even consider for possible inclusion in their side -- and he would have to get in ahead of the phenomenal Imanol Harinordoquy.
Jerry Flannery (facing possible suspension for his impetuous challenge on Alexis Palisson), Gordon D'Arcy and Leo Cullen produced decent displays and Brian O'Driscoll had some quality moments despite struggling with a knock to his knee, but only Heaslip was able to consistently do to the French what they were doing so contemptuously to the Irish.
Ireland's defensive line, so impressive since Les Kiss took over, was regularly breached, the scrum battled gamely, but was under enormous pressure and the home back-row bossed the breakdown, providing service on a platter for scrum-half Morgan Parra, who showed he was more than just a pre-match trash-talker. Only Ireland's line-out was beyond reproof, snaffling four throws and winning all 11 of their own. But, everywhere else, Ireland were bested which had inevitable, and regular, consequences for the scoreboard.
And yet, looking at the stats afterwards you would have been forgiven for thinking that the compilers had got their figures mixed up. Ireland were well ahead in terms of possession and only made 67 tackles compared to the home team's 111.
It makes the final score appear baffling, until you look at the error count which was also in Ireland's favour to the tune of two to one.
It is hard to remember the last time Ireland made so many handling mistakes (perhaps against Namibia or Georgia at the last World Cup). It was basic stuff, spills from restarts and simple passes dropped which had a crippling effect when Ireland were trying to generate momentum.
And there was momentum for the first quarter. Boosted by their line-out security and determined to prevent the French getting off to their customary free-scoring start, Ireland came at the home side hard, working the phases in a fashion that backed up pre-match optimism. With referee Wayne Barnes uncommonly quiet on the whistle, there were no early penalty chances for Ronan O'Gara, but there were opportunities.
The giant one came as a result of D'Arcy's electric break up the middle, which would have led to a try beneath the French posts had his chip ahead bounced fortuitously. Instead, the French roared back through Harinordoquy and a minute later Cian Healy was being sent to the bin for an illegal tug on Parra.
The scrum-half knocked over the penalty and converted William Servat's try a few minutes later as France put the squeeze on in the scrum with Ireland still down to 14. Ten points in the 10 minutes Healy was off (and Flannery could have been) gave France the start they wanted.
O'Gara got Ireland off mark with a penalty on 32 minutes, only for France to respond in waves with Yannick Jauzion going over for another converted try and a 17-3 lead.
The visitors had one more chance before half-time to arrest the inevitable. Opting to kick for the corner, Ireland set up shop, but a poor pass by Tomas O'Leary, which forced Tommy Bowe to check for the ball, and a spill by Paul O'Connell wasted the two main touchdown tilts. O'Leary's decision to tap and go -- only to get blown backwards by Thierry Dusatoir and Jauzion -- robbed Ireland of the mentally comforting last score penalty before half-time.
The second period was never going to bring a reversal of fortunes, Bastareaud's brilliance allowed Poitrenaud cross for their third try, converted by Parra, who added a penalty and drop goal before Freddie Michalak applied the coup de grace with another drop goal.
Ireland did manage a try through David Wallace, after excellent work from O'Driscoll, but history shows France are prone to lapses in concentration when they know the game is in the bag.
So, it's an introspection exercise for players and coach.This is the heaviest, significant reverse of Kidney's professional coaching career. The 22-3 loss to New Zealand in November 2008 was his second match in charge and the players were patently getting used to the new regime, while the only other contender is Llanelli's comfortable 24-15 Heineken Cup quarter-final win in 2007. This is new territory, with Twickenham looming ominously (despite England;s poor display yesterday), a trip further complicated by Rob Kearney's knee injury and Flannery's possible suspension. Another defeat there and this venture will have really begun to unravel.
There are selection issues to be addressed. Dropping John Hayes for the first time in his 10-year career when he is on the verge of becoming Ireland's first centurion would appear ungrateful (evoking memories of Phil Orr being left out for Paul Kennedy in 1986 when about to win his 50th successive cap), but Tom Court looked more comfortable in the scrum and carries more of a threat on the ball.
Tomas O'Leary will come under pressure after Eoin Reddan upped the tempo on his introduction, but the Munster scrum-half has been a key figure in this side's run of success and has the right to expect to be allowed one off day.
However, Twickenham could be seen as the ideal occasion to continue Jonathan Sexton's development at out-half, as it would Sean O'Brien's in the back-row.
Whoever is picked, that game now assumes giant importance and the starting point has to be the eradication of the spills that hamstrung their efforts against France. Fail to do so and the knock-on effects could be calamitous.
For the biggest question now for Ireland and their World Cup aspirations is not one you ever what to hear on Valentine's weeked: "Where do we stand?"
FRANCE -- C Poitrenaud; V Clerc (D Marty 49), M Bastareaud, Y Jauzion (F Michalak 70), A Palisson (J Malzieu 26); F Trinh-Duc, M Parra; T Domingo, W Servat (D Szarzewski 51), N Mas (S Marconnet 51, Mas 78), L Nallet, P Pape, T Dusautoir (capt), F Ouedraogo, I Harinordoquy (J Bonnaire 64).
IRELAND -- R Kearney (P Wallace 38); T Bowe, B O'Driscoll (capt, Paddy Wallace 20-22), G D'Arcy, K Earls; R O'Gara (J Sexton 73, T O'Leary (E Reddan 73); C Healy, J Flannery (R Best 63), J Hayes (T Court 51), L Cullen (D Ryan 63), P O'Connell, S Ferris (T Court 20-30), D Wallace, J Heaslip. Yellow card: Healy 17
REF -- W Barnes (England)