Tuesday 20 March 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: We have only won twice in Paris in 34 years but this loss really hurt

French scrum masters turn the screw in game Ireland should have won

Devin Toner reaches for a restart during yesterday’s match at the Stade de France. Photo: Brendan Moran. Photo: Sportsfile
Devin Toner reaches for a restart during yesterday’s match at the Stade de France. Photo: Brendan Moran. Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

It's official. We're in a rugby recession. You have to go back to the BOD era for the last time Ireland didn't win one of their first two games in the Six, though it was five then, Nations Championship. Not the Brian O'Driscoll era, the Before O'Driscoll era. 1998 was the last time it happened, a time when Conor O'Shea and Keith Wood were involved in the action rather than commenting on it and Ireland had two different managers, Brian Ashton and Warren Gatland, for those two games.

We may only have won twice in Paris in the last 34 years but this defeat also had a distinctly retrogressive feel to it. This was France's first Six Nations win over Ireland since 2011, Les Bleus had gone five on the trot without defeating Les Verts. The last time France beat us Brian Cowen had just resigned as Taoiseach and called a general election.

You could argue that this was the very model of a gallant defeat, as indeed it was. But for Joe Schmidt's Ireland the result is all. The scoreline has often been the only thing the supporters can take away from the game. We have, after all, celebrated some reasonably ungallant victories.

It looks like the bid for a historic third title in a row has already run aground though optimists can take comfort from the fact that back in 1974 Ireland began with a defeat by France and a draw against Wales and still managed to win the Five Nations.

What makes this so galling is that this was a game Ireland could have won. For an hour we were so dominant as to make it look like we might be looking at a different historic first, a routine and not particularly dramatic victory in Paris. France looked no better than they had in the World Cup meeting between the two sides and Ireland again appeared to have the edge in diligence, discipline and organisation.

The arrival of a new French front-row was the catalyst for change and the game swung on that frantic period between the 62nd and 69th minute when the home team, trailing 9-3, kicked to the corner instead of taking an easy penalty and put the Irish line under siege to the accompaniment of the Marseillaise whose most stirring lines roughly translate as, "Low lies the head of Louis the Sixteenth where once we heard the guillotine sing."

After a grand shemozzle underneath the Irish posts when France could make a convincing case for having scored but, like a conspiracy theorist, lacked only documentary evidence, the outcome began to revolve around a series of close-in scrums where a struggling Irish front row played 'chicken' with ref Jaco Peyper, collapsing and practically defying him to give a penalty try. The South African showed extraordinary patience with Ireland in resisting the ultimate sanction three times before warning that he was operating a 'four strikes and you're out' sentencing policy.

All France had to do was shove Ireland back one time. Instead replacement scrumhalf Jean-Marc Doussain made a sniping run and put Maxime Medard in under the posts for, with Jules Plisson's tap-over conversion to come, the winning score. Ireland, you felt, would never have rolled the dice in this way.

And therein lies the problem. Because the game was probably lost in the 60 minutes when Ireland were in control rather than the final 20 when France held sway. The first half often recalled Irish jaunts to Paris in the days of the Parc de Princes and the cockerel being released onto the pitch. Only this time it was the home team who were pinned back in their own territory, unable to get a foothold on the game.

Yet for all Ireland's territorial superiority they never looked like getting the first cousin of a try. It's customary after narrow defeats to say that you can't fault Ireland for work rate, courage, enthusiasm and character. This is true.

But there are also things you can't credit the team with, like imagination, creativity and flair. The lack of these is sometimes laid at Schmidt's door but it also has something to do with the fact that the current side doesn't have an O'Driscoll, a D'Arcy, a Geordan Murphy, a peak-form Bowe or even a Horgan or a Hickie in its ranks. In which circumstances it's a pity that the manager seems determined to see how many members of the Kearney family he can pick ahead of Simon Zebo.

Sure, it wasn't a day for attacking rugby. The weather was so Irish you suspected that behind the stands a herd of cattle was lolloping along a drumlin.

Even the 1973 Barbarians would have found it difficult to scintillate in those conditions. But France at least attempted to display a modicum of adventure. Ireland, not for the first time, were at their most impressive when they didn't have the ball.

And yes the French cynically targeted Johnny Sexton and the six-day turnaround was tough on the players and Seán O'Brien was a big loss, (he might have got to Doussain for one thing).

But over the past two years we've mocked the excuses of teams who've come within an ace of denying us the Six Nations crown and exulted in our ability to always just do enough. Because Ireland were winners.

What goes around comes around. Right now we're losers.

Sunday Indo Sport

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport