19 Jun, 06:50
A single point separated the sides as a hard-fought 5th-8th place play-off finished in France's favour at Stade Henri Desgrange on Tuesday night. Check out some photos from Ireland's fourth IRB Junior World Championsip match.
This wasn't a throwback to the old days of moral victories and relief at not being hammered. There was immense pride in a recovery from a group of players that showed massive character in the face of a potential thumping right out of the early nineties. In similar situations in the past, Irish players have looked to hide in the wide open spaces of a sunny Paris.
There were several parallels with the game two years ago. On that occasion, Shane Horgan famously gathered the players under the sticks as the French hit forty-odd and declared that careers were on the line. One suspects that the same was true on Saturday. That Ireland came back in the way that they did suggests that this is a group that will play for this coach.
Another parallel lay in the fact that two years ago, Ireland actually played quite well - up front in particular - even as they racked up a serious deficit. But they were punished savagely for every single error, much like Saturday. Any time there was a turnover you immediately feared the worst.
Vincent Clerc must wish he could play Ireland every week. He and Cedric Heymans are on fire at the moment and the contrast in the opposing back threes was colossal. Fortunately, we will not face their like again in this tournament.
Allied to the frustrations of conceding relatively soft tries in that first half there was the frustration of making egregious errors. For all his many gifts, Brian O'Driscoll is not the biggest of kickers. If you are going to use a miss pass moving from right to left to create space for a deep kick from second centre, then you absolutely should be bringing Rob Kearney's siege gun left boot to the party, not using O'Driscoll's right foot on the wrong side.
Other errors of thought niggled. For instance, in the last few minutes, when Ireland had a penalty around the halfway line, Ronan O'Gara kicked right-footed to the right touchline earning a throw-in on the 22. At this stage of the game, the ball should have been handed to Kearney to aim for touch ten metres from the French line. With the Irish pack in such command at that stage, it was the difference between creating a try-scoring position or not.
The importance of not conceding turnovers was evident in that their first two scores came directly from this. On first viewing of the first French try, I felt aggrieved not that Eoin Reddan was taken out at the ruck as the commentators complained of. Nallet just counter-rucked legitimately and Reddan was bowled over by his own player - fair enough. What exercised me instead was that the ball quite clearly wasn't out of the ruck when Nallet picked it off the ground. However, in fairness to Nigel Owens, there was no longer a French player in the ruck, therefore it was no longer a ruck but open play.
I'd like to think that this was also Owens' analysis of the situation as well, as it was a key moment. Ireland had gotten off to a very good start and after fifteen minutes were holding their own well despite the threat from Rougerie, Clerc and Heymans.
The French have rediscovered a sense of depth in their backline. A good example came with Clerc's hat-trick try in the 37th minute. The obvious issue was Heymans' searing pace, but the role of Marty shouldn't be overlooked. He ran at the inside shoulder of the Irish second centre, completely fixing the Irish defence and leaving a big channel for Heymans to exploit.
The second French try was truly upsetting because what should have been routinely handled defensively was anything but. A French attack broke down leaving a 15 metre short side, but Ireland simply didn't count the numbers defensively and got caught short. It wasn't like it was super-quick ball or anything. The video shows Murphy desperately calling for cover but Denis Leamy got there a bit late and got caught outside.
The pack must have been wondering what more they could do. They took the fight to France from the off and were ahead on points even before Lievremont emptied the bench and handed Ireland a massive advantage that they took full advantage of.
Once again, having worked a 5m lineout, as per the Italy match and indeed several others over the past few years, we coughed up the crucial ball. Overall, our lineout stats weren't bad in that we won 76% of our own balls versus France's 75%. But quite a few of ours were sloppy and not worth a lot.
The scrum had as good a day out as it has had in years, with the penalty try the ultimate accolade for the efforts of Messrs Hayes and Horan, who have suffered some slings and arrows down the years. Having said that, I thought the award was generous in the extreme. It was given for two successive penalties in the sequence when realistically it was impossible to make the judgement that had the second one not been given, Ireland 'probably' would have scored. A yellow card for persistent infringing was about the most we should have got out of that.
How do we add greater backline thrust? The harsh reality is that while Brian O'Driscoll is still a potent threat we can no longer rely on his genius to create the kind of offensive line breaks as we have enjoyed for the past eight years. His game is necessarily changing, but he needs to rid himself of the tendency to look for offloads that go beyond speculative.
When France picked up their third ludicrously fortunate try in two matches with Heymans scooting in off a ricochet off Brian O'Driscoll's privates, it truly was adding insult to injury. Those of us old enough to have experienced the pain of the seventies, eighties and nineties retired to our position behind the couch at this point.
What happened next was an extraordinary display of mental fortitude. It possibly helped that a fair number were on the pitch two years ago when Ireland nearly completed the comeback of all time. This time, playing a far more restricted game, we actually went closer. It is by no means ridiculous to suggest that had there been time for one more play, we would likely have claimed the spoils, for at that stage the French pack was badly shook and Ireland's maul was going gangbusters.
Ultimately this was a rare occasion when one actually pined for a dose of Eamon Dunphy in the TV studio. For only he would have adequately paid tribute to the character of a team that had the courage to pick itself off the floor when the gods were conspiring with their own lack of confidence. Dunphy would have marvelled at Donncha O'Callaghan's sheer honesty and emotion when interviewed afterwards. He is having his best ever season.
Overall, the positives outweighed the negatives. Marchons.