Thursday 14 December 2017

A bright future on the horizon

Young guns provide cause for optimism – whoever is at helm
Ireland 13
France 13

Ireland’s Keith Earls is blocked by France’s Vincent Debaty (left) as Louis Picamoles touches down for a France ‘22’ in the latter stages of Saturday’s draw
Ireland’s Keith Earls is blocked by France’s Vincent Debaty (left) as Louis Picamoles touches down for a France ‘22’ in the latter stages of Saturday’s draw
Conor George

Conor George

Once again Ireland faded in the second half to let slip a win they could have taken pride in at the Aviva Stadium.

The draw did not do justice to a rousing Ireland performance, but from the depths of disappointment there emerged genuine cause for satisfaction and, indeed, optimism.

Out of adversity arrived a preview of a future we could not have anticipated for Ireland.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Ireland's Championship bid has been devastated by a crippling series of injuries and, in some cases, forced retirement. As a consequence, Ireland have had to look beyond the usual suspects.

Onto the scene have come a flood of players who are barely of shaving age, but with them has come a wave of optimism for the future.

Luke Marshall (21), Dave Kilcoyne (24), Stephen Archer (25), Iain Henderson (21), Ian Madigan (23) and Paddy Jackson (21) are all newcomers to the international stage this season.

So too the unfortunately absent Craig Gilroy (21) and Simon Zebo (23).

Add Peter O'Mahony (23), Conor Murray (24), Keith Earls (25) and Luke Fitzgerald (25) to the mix and you get a real sense of just how exciting the future for Ireland promises to be.

These players are a future that could be every bit as fulfilling as that delivered by the 'Golden Generation'.

A game against France is always going to be a challenge to young players unfamiliar with the pace and ruggedness of international rugby. Ireland's newcomers coped remarkably, more so because of the conditions.

They benefited from the contribution of the more established players. The senior citizens (in comparison) of the squad like Jamie Heaslip, Mike Ross, Brian O'Driscoll and Rob Kearney showed the way in a brave performance.

But an objective analysis of the contest suggested Ireland should have achieved more. A failure to register more scores on the board was disconcerting. Ireland should have won: they played the better, more controlled rugby.

They failed to win because of their inability to create chances in the second half, a predicament which has dogged them through this Championship.

The prophets of doom will luxuriate in Ireland's failure to score beyond the 33rd minute, and it would be remiss not to reflect on this alarming trend in Ireland's performances this season.

They didn't score for the last 37 minutes against Wales, the last 40 against England and the last 37 against Scotland.

That inability to capitalise and make a superiority count is a frustration, and the players' efforts were not helped by a stadium devoid of atmosphere or a pitch of questionable condition.

O'Driscoll, Fergus McFadden, Eoin Reddan, Marshall, Murray and Donnacha Ryan (again) joined their colleagues on the treatment table for injuries that may keep them out of the trip to Rome this weekend.

The rising casualty list is killing Ireland, and Declan Kidney's suggestion, that the number of injuries Ireland are suffering from is a contributing factor, is sound.

"You can carry so much for so long and something's going to catch you sooner or later," said Kidney. "We're working off something like a 40pc injury-rate. I think France were missing (Pascal) Pape, that was it!"

So attritional has this season been that there can be very little chance of a repeat of the extraordinary sequence of events that have conspired to so disarm Ireland in a Championship that initially promised so much. So it is to the future you look for encouragement, and the game was a triumph for the aforementioned cadre of young warriors who have been brought through under Kidney.

Only the IRFU and, perhaps, Kidney himself know if he will be around after the summer tour. For certain he won't leave before then. But no matter who is in the seat they will be inheriting a squad that is as dynamic as it is exciting.

This was a French team that was ruthless in its search of redemption. Only seven of Ireland's squad have beaten France, and only O'Driscoll has done so twice.

"This result, this performance and this season will bring these younger guys on a ton," said Kidney.

"There's still something to play for. If nothing else next week is another chance to play for your country, and there will be some fellas who will get the chance that might not have so far.

"And if you win next week the way it's panning out, third or fourth place is available. That's not where you want to be, but there's that much to play for."

The Earls incident aside – for which he should have been awarded a penalty – Ireland never pressed home their advantage and the decision to withdraw Murray back-fired badly.

Murray had been running the game. He made life so comfortable for his out-half that Jackson will surely never again enjoy so much freedom in a Six Nations game against France.

Without Murray's calming influence and his kicking game, Ireland stopped trusting in their strengths, especially their defensive line-out where O'Mahony was magnificent. The flanker disrupted three French darts, which begged the question of why didn't Ireland persist with the tactic of kicking to the corner.

With O'Mahony making life incredibly difficult for the French jumpers there was a chance of pilfering in the danger area and allowing the maul to do its work. And at worst they would have forced France to concede possession.

There is merit in the suggestion that by the time the game entered the last quarter, Ireland's players were dead on their feet, with the huge physical exertions in defence having taken its toll.

There was no subtlety about France. They challenged Ireland with their big runners forcing them to put their bodies on the line.

This was evident in the carnage played out in the final minutes with a host of Ireland players barely hanging on.

Inevitably O'Driscoll was one of those left battered from the huge collisions that left bodies strewn across the pitch. Ireland's spiritual leader was always in the thick of things and after receiving treatment to a head wound he re-entered the fray to lead the resistance in the closing minutes.

O'Driscoll has always been an example for young players. Perhaps we will not see him again in an Irish shirt in Lansdowne, but if that be the case it will have been fitting that our last view of our inspirational leader will have been of seeing him muddied, bandaged and defiant, bravely battling to the final whistle in Ireland's cause.

A draw is rarely a positive outcome in any sporting arena. But given how this season has gone for Ireland, and under the circumstances, the positives must be clung to.

The future is bright ... that much, at least, we can be optimistic about.

Ireland – R Kearney, F McFadden (L Fitzgerald 62), B O'Driscoll (C Murray 71-75), L Marshall (I Madigan 72), K Earls; P Jackson, C Murray (E Reddan 62, S Cronin 80); C Healy, R Best, M Ross; M McCarthy, D Ryan (D O'Callaghan 68), P O'Mahony (I Henderson (77), S O'Brien, J Heaslip.

France – Y Huget; V Clerc, F Fritz (M Bastareaud 67), W Fofana, M Medard; F Michalak, M Parra; T Domingo (V Debaty 65), B Kayser (G Guirado 67), N Mas, C Samson, Y Maestri (S Vahaamahina 50), Y Nyanga (A Claassen 65), T Dusautoir (capt), L Picamoles.

Ref – S Walsh (Australia).

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