Sunday 17 December 2017

Outmuscled and outclassed by a superior force

No more than last year's Grand Slam success made a good Irish team great, did the defeat in Paris on Saturday, however ruthless, make this same Irish unit a poor one.

The truth, we all know and remind ourselves consistently, lies somewhere in between.

Declan Kidney has already proved to be an outstanding head coach at this level, not least in the way he carries out his work. Never do you see him get ahead of himself in times of glory, but equally never does he lose it when his side is down.

Marc Lievremont's side were majestic on Saturday and, on this impressive evidence, are already well on the way to a serious assault on the World Cup in 19 months. This is the time to be upping the ante and that they most certainly did against the Irish.

The power in the scrum, the ferocity in the tackle, the physicality in midfield -- but more than anything the sheer collective intensity from first whistle to last -- was infectious.

Even in the opening quarter, when we were at our very best, they matched us toe-to-toe in the raw scrap.

It could be said that had Gordon D'Arcy's incisive off-the-cuff break led to the score it deserved, the course the contest eventually took might have meandered a different way. But it didn't and, despite the first 20 going largely to plan, there was only one real team in it after that.

Two acts of indiscipline turned the tide and with it the match. Cian Healy's so called 'professional foul' -- I think unprofessional is a lot closer to the mark -- which led directly to Morgan Parra's opening penalty, against the run of play, allied to Jerry Flannery's rush of blood to the head and reckless kick on Alex Palisson, which culminated in a critical penalty reversal by referee Wayne Barnes, undoubtedly upset the Irish flow.

My initial reaction, much like the referee and many other former internationals whose opinion I respect, was that Flannery's misdemeanour was not as bad as it looked. But upon viewing the replay several times it was late, highly dangerous and reckless in the extreme. Expect further disciplinary action to follow. From that point on the tide turned into a full-blown, relentless tsunami as blue shirts engulfed green everywhere.

Kidney will be the first to acknowledge the gravity of the self-induced wounds, but equally he will look to extrapolate whatever positives he can to build on for Twickenham in a fortnight.

The line-out went well, with Leo Cullen a very significant presence for the second week running. Jamie Heaslip got down and dirty as required, despite facing, in Imanol Harinordoquy, the best player in the No 8 position anywhere at this point in time.

Tommy Bowe chased everything, despite hardly receiving a pass worthy of the name. Flannery, loose boot apart, was most conspicuous in the loose, while both centres worked hard, with particularly Brian O'Driscoll (as ever) the most effective Irish back on the field. Keith Earls and Stephen Ferris each made a mark on their return, but mainly in a defensive mode, which, in itself, says it all.

All that said, we were, in the end, outmuscled and outclassed by a far superior force and therein lies the reality in moving our game on to another level.

The baby won't be disappearing down the plughole with the bathwater just yet, but we do have grave limitations when compared to the top four, that is the southern hemisphere three and France.

Maybe it is a reality check for all, myself included, as I did honestly believe we were travelling in the best nick ever to challenge Les Bleus meaningfully in their own, almost impenetrable, backyard.

It wasn't by any means a one-sided romp, but it was a comprehensive mauling that will have brought just about everybody in this neck of the woods back to earth with a bang.

Irish Independent

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