Peter Bills: Scrum in tight spot
France highlight problems already well documented about the Irish set-piece
THE drop-kick over the busy Boulevard Saint Germain in early afternoon might have been a touch madcap. Parisien shoppers stopped and gawped as loyal members of the Irish rugby supporters army weaved between cars, taxis and trucks in pursuit of the loose ball on the other side of the street.
But once over there, those fans demonstrated their knowledge of what lay ahead for their fellow boys in green out on the icy wastes of the Stade de France that evening. Amid the hurrying shoppers, they put down a scrum and heaved a couple of mates backwards.
Ah lads -- as Declan Kidney doubtless did not say afterwards, amid the sanctuary of a morgue-like Irish dressing room -- if only you'd paid more attention to the scrum they practised on the pavement outside Emporio Armani, the Polish bookshop and a cafe.
Long, long before the intensifying cold wrapped a wicked hand over the by-then silent Stade de France late on Saturday night, Ireland had been reminded of a philosophy that has underpinned this old game for more decades than we can remember. After all, was it not another Irishman, the redoubtable Syd Millar, who came up with words that echoed down the years, to his young charges on the 1974 British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa?
"You are going to scrummage and then scrummage. You are going to scrummage until you are sick of it. After that, you will scrummage some more," said Syd, the Lions coach that year. But his intent reaped handsome rewards; Millar's Lions established a forward platform which humiliated and smashed the South Africans and gave the tourists their greatest ever series victory in the southern hemisphere.
Times pass and lessons once learned slip the mind. But even amidst the heady heights of a 12-game unbeaten run in international rugby which stretched back to autumn 2008, we still suspected there was a flaw, an inherent weakness at the heart of this Ireland team. Doubts remained about the credibility of their scrummage.
Not even the arrival of one of the world's best forward coaches, South African Gert Smal, had been able to eradicate completely those suspicions. Parity was about as good as it was ever likely to get for Ireland in that department, but you feared that somewhere, one day, on one occasion these particular chickens might come home to roost.
With a devilish twist of historical reference, St Valentine's weekend in Paris was when the massacre occurred. It was executed with such brutal precision that no doubts whatsoever remained in Irish minds well before the end. In that area of the game Syd Millar has so loved all his life, Ireland had been living a lie.
The admirable, worthy John Hayes has never been a tight head to destroy technically proficient opponents. But his bulk ensured difficulty for some and parity against others.
Alas, it took a nation like the French, keen adherents all their lives to the concept of the scrummaging arts, to reveal what we had known for some time. Ireland's scrum was vulnerable and ready to be devoured. And so it came to pass on a night of icy chill in February.
The blame should not be laid solely at Hayes' door, for this was a collective failure up front, with the exception of a purple patch in the line-outs before half-time, when four French throws misdirected like errant exocets.
So pressurised was the Irish front five, that a platform could rarely be established for the elegant cutting edge outside the pack of players such as Brian O'Driscoll, Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls and Rob Kearney. Gordon D'Arcy, it is true, made one coruscating break and was denied a try under the posts only by the vagaries of the bouncing ball.
But that apart, Ireland came apart up front and half-backs Tomas O'Leary and Ronan O'Gara were forced to play off back-foot ball, a dire predicament. What is more, the normally wildly erratic, unpredictable French chose this, of all occasions, to mount one of the outstanding defensively structured performances of this or any recent Six Nations Championship.
Study the statistics if you doubt this point, but be warned: if ever a set of statistics told an absurd tale it was in this game.
Ireland finished top in all the following categories: ball won in open play (France 52 Ireland 88), ball won in opponents' 22 (France 11 Ireland 30), ruck and pass (France 39 Ireland 72), passes (France 91 Ireland 184), tackles made (France 111 Ireland 67), minutes in possession (France 27 mins 29 secs Ireland 38 minutes 53 seconds).
Ireland did have ball, but it was invariably extracted from ruck and maul under heavy pressure.
And besides, at 17-3 and then 27-3, France could afford to switch off their own pressure and sit back to soak up Ireland's increasingly frantic attempts to play that rubik's cube of a game, catch-up rugby. So often, the likes of O'Driscoll and Bowe, having found the defensive door securely bolted down on one side of the French defence, had to double back and try to gain entry on the other side. They rarely succeeded.
With the Irish back-row constrained by problems in the front five, the French trio of Imanol Harinordoquy, Fulgence Ouedraogo and Thierry Dusautoir gambolled around like spring lambs in the field. Mighty physical ones, mind you. But to be fair to France, as Declan Kidney and Brian O'Driscoll commendably said, you had to credit the hosts.
Conquerors of New Zealand and South Africa in the last eight months, they are starting to emerge from a long, barren phase. The mix of forward might and pace, invention and direction at half-back, plus penetration out wide is a heady one. It is hard to see a Grand Slam being denied them this time.
As the chill again gripped central Paris late on Saturday night, sober Irish voices were carefully picking over the ruins of their team's defeat. It is not, as someone suggested, the end of a cycle. But it should herald the beginning of a re-awakening of realities in the tight five.