Monday 19 March 2018

Hard to draw comfort

PARIS, take two; take one point.

Ireland took the 'body blow' of a 17-all draw at Stade de France. And that says everything about the way they played and what they could have, should have, but didn't achieve.

Coach Declan Kidney described it as "a bit like kissing your sister" which is something most of us have not tried. But you get the general impression.

"We said before the game we had to believe in ourselves -- do what we do. Don't try and do something magical. We didn't try to do that. We played our own solid game. These games hinge on tight margins. None more so than today," said Kidney.

Paul O'Connell was not in a frame of mind to see the first draw by Ireland in France in this competition since 1950 and just the third time they haven't been beaten in 40 years as cause for celebration. "It is disappointing for us, played good rugby in the first-half, probably didn't match it in the second. We had a great opportunity to win. We didn't take it," he said.

He was keen to point out how referee Dave Pearson viewed that Ireland were infringing so much more than France. The penalty count ended 11-4 in the home side's favour.

"The penalty count was weighted heavily against us as well which was very frustrating, very annoying. We left it behind us," added O'Connell. "It is very disappointing when you build a lead like we did that we didn't close it out."

It looked so good for so long. Hooker Rory Best was onto Dimitri Szarzewski in a flash to force the first penalty which Jonathan Sexton mishit in the seventh minute.

Then, Tommy Bowe latched onto a loose pass by Aurelien Rougerie to snaffle his 23rd international try. Sexton converted from the shadow of the sticks in the 13th minute for a golden start.

It should have injected the confidence to go along with the apparent physicality. It did. The building blocks were in place.

Then, Francois Trinh-Duc got his right hand free to slip the ball to Imanol Harinordoquy to set up an attack that ended with Morgan Parra smacking a penalty in the 23rd minute.

The response was immediate. Rory Best and Paul O'Connell took control. France did not roll away at a ruck. Sexton posted his first penalty.

Ireland's blitz defence in the closer channels was a surprise that almost produced a second intercept by Bowe, this time on Parra from a lineout.

The French began to wield an influence as Ireland's back row scrummaged with their heads up, offering little support to the front three. Parra struck from 40 metres.

Just as French flair was turning the tide, Sean O'Brien stole a ball on the floor and Keith Earls turned a low pass from Stephen Ferris into something beautiful by sucking in Vincent Clerc. It allowed just enough elbow room for Bowe to chip-and-gather past a flat-footed Clement Poitrenaud for his second try. Sexton's conversion glanced in off the right upright for a 17-6 lead at the interval.

As the conditions deteriorated after the restart, Thierry Dusautoir marshalled his troops forward via a maul. Ireland collapsed it. Parra smacked over three points in the 47th minute.

A shocker of a pass from Parra, under pressure from Conor Murray, confused everyone, French and Irish alike. Earls stepped up out of the line to take a lash at the ball. He missed it. Fly-half Trinh-Duc snatched it off the floor and passed to centre Wesley Fofana, who accelerated away to just evade Rob Kearney for an opportunist try.

When Cian Healy was blown for not releasing lock Pascal Pape before going for the poach, in what was a borderline decision by Pearson, Parra brought France level in the 58th minute.

The lineout continued to be an issue, Best feeling the heat from the French jumpers even at a throw five metres out from the line following a superb counter by Rob Kearney.

Ireland were playing the game in the right area. Perhaps, their superior fitness was beginning to tell.

Kearney was at it again taking the ball out of the clutches of Imanol Harinordoquy.


The tide started to turn again. France went forward. Lionel Beauxis scuffed one drop goal and had a second blocked down by a hard-charging Stephen Ferris. The very same man was there to force a penalty from Yoann Maestri on the floor.

A titanic struggle concluded with Ireland's greatest heroes Bowe and Kearney bundling Julien Malzieu into touch, snuffing out danger on a day when they had posed so many problems themselves.

To be so cock-a-hoop at half-time and fall from such a height as an 11-point lead was difficult to stomach for the management and players.

"Nobody likes a draw," said Tommy Bowe. Damn right. It leaves you neither devastated nor sated for the experience. Professional sport is about winning. Everything else is secondary. Ireland cannot win the Grand Slam or the Championship. They can only win their last two matches at home to Scotland and away to England on St Patrick's Day.

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