Rampant French destroy Kidney’s Grand ambition
Unforced errors and petulance key to Irish collapse, writes John O'Brien
SO you claim a coveted Grand Slam. You go 15 months unvanquished against the best sides in the world, hold your own when the big guns from the southern hemisphere roll into town and still you find there is more do to. Another peak to scale. Brave new worlds to conquer. Yesterday brought Ireland to the sub-zero temperatures of a Parisian springtime and the cruel hand of history can never have felt colder.
Ireland have felt more stinging defeats in this city than anywhere else and the first instinct was to believe this was up there with the worst of them. Occasionally during the game the camera would flash to Marc Lievremont and the French coach's lips would betray the faintest impression of a smirk. No elation or sense of triumph, though. Just satisfaction at a job neatly done, nothing more than they expected of themselves.
It harked back to a past we thought was long since buried. In his engaging newspaper column yesterday morning, former Munster and Ireland winger John Kelly spoke about France's 39-point rout in this stadium in 2002. At dinner that night it struck Kelly that the mood among the French players was eerily subdued. They had won a Grand Slam but didn't seem to regard it as any great shakes. Ireland had beaten them in Paris twice in 50 years. It felt like little more than routine business.
The point was that Ireland had travelled far since that pitiless day and, whatever else they would manage, they wouldn't arrive in Paris and fold as readily as the French would once have anticipated. They could make the journey with a bravado and confidence that didn't seem strained or naive.
History was against them but that would not have frightened them.
In his time as coach we have come to expect of Declan Kidney something different to what prevailed before. Yet this game followed an alarmingly familiar pattern: Ireland committing too many unforced errors from the start and petulant acts of indiscipline that were so conspicuously absent last year. They were chasing the game against a side growing cockier by the minute. Most of this Ireland team have been in that position before. It was the last place they would have wanted to be.
At half-time Ireland trailed 17-3 and, for anyone watching, there was a depressing sense of deja vu about the scoreline.
In 2006 they suffered a nightmare start and trailed by 30 points at the interval. Two years ago France led 19-6 at the break. Both times Ireland managed a resurgence before the end but there was no way back. Yesterday the fightback was far more modest. France won with as much style as they could muster.
The portents of doom were there early on. When Rob Kearney waved away Paul O'Connell and Stephen Ferris as he went to gather the kick-off, the full-back was seeking to exert a measure of authority and control on the game that Ireland would have expected to achieve. The manner in which the full-back spilled the ball forward was a grim forewarning of the carelessness that was to come.
It might have been different, of course. Even at this level you always get at least one chance and Ireland blew theirs.
In the harmless trash-talking both sides had engaged in during the week, you sensed in France an eagerness not just to soften Ireland's cough but to do so in a manner that harked back to the likes of Jo Maso, Pierre Villepreux and other gods of the cavalier, running game they once so beautifully espoused.
So they ran from deep and took chances from impossible positions. Not bad for Ireland, you felt. Summoning the spirit of the old greats was all very well for France, but this Ireland team defends better than any of its predecessors. Much of the basis for the Grand Slam was built on pragmatism and defensive soundness. If the French became too confident and over-ambitious they might be vulnerable too.
Ireland's chance came when Kearney magnificently gathered his own punt to set Ireland on the attack. Ferris steamrolled his way into the French 22 and Jamie Heaslip was held up only a few feet short. A few minutes later Gordon D'Arcy was within a whisker and a favourable bounce of scoring under the posts. Yet moments later Cian Healy was seeing yellow for a cynical foul on Morgan Parra and the scrum-half was kicking France in front. The home team had the lead and all the momentum.
From there it went horribly wrong for Ireland. They lost their discipline and their shape. In the words of Keith Wood they suffered a "brain freeze". If you could forgive Healy's lapse on the basis of youth, what clemency could you offer Jerry Flannery for his lash out at Alexis Palisson a short time later? Ireland were under the cosh but still only three points behind. Where did Flannery's frustration stem from? In such a tightly disciplined unit, it was unfathomable how easily they were put out of their stride.
So the best team ever assembled in an Irish jersey was doomed to relive an age-old nightmare. In his column Kelly had spoken about the unnerving experience of going to Paris and how his old colleague Anthony Foley would amuse the players on the eve of the game by announcing his latest "one-cap wonder" team which generally included the most recent additions. This weekend Foley would have had fun with the likes of Healy and Keith Earls. Yesterday evening the humour would have been too raw to the bone, though.
This time they didn't foresee the grimness of the nightmare. Paul O'Connell is considered one of the best players to play for his country yet he has now played and lost in the Stade de France eight times.
Before yesterday the likes of Earls, Heaslip and Ferris didn't carry that historical baggage. Now they know a little of the torture that rugby's hardest journeys can inflict and you can only hope they breed them strong enough these days that they emerge the better for it.
Earls, in particular, will be keen to consign this day to the bin. With 24 minutes left he needlessly executed a quick tap from deep inside his own 22 and committed the error that ultimately led to France's third try finished by Clement Poitrenaud. O'Driscoll and D'Arcy tried to console him, but at that moment you knew the 22-year-old wished for nothing more than the Parisian turf to open up and swallow him whole.
The nightmare was collective, though.
As coach of Munster Kidney learned how difficult it was to pull off the sporting encore when his team came up short in the defence of their European title in 2007. It was interesting to watch how he took over an under-achieving side from Eddie O'Sullivan and turned them into champions and it will be equally interesting to see how he galvanises them after this unfortunate blip.