Lens. The memory still haunts. It was meant to be a fairly straight-forward affair and we all expected to be back in Lansdowne Road for the quarter-final. But no-one told the Pumas about our plan
‘Now this was a disaster. Ireland’s World Cup and with it their world caved in at the Stade Felix Bollaert in tortuous, heartbreaking fashion last night. Now it is only Argentina who have the quarter-final against France at Lansdowne Road still in focus’. – That was how Gerry Thornley began his match report in The Irish Times on the morning after Ireland had crashed out of the last World Cup.
Remember, Ireland had led right up to the 75th minute. Seven David Humphreys penalties and drop goal had them 24-18 in front and then the out-half saw his drop-goal attempt come back off an upright. Besides that he shaved the posts with two other drop-goal efforts and in the final manic moments, there may have been a case made for the Irish being awarded a penalty-try.
When the only try of the game did come it was scored by Diego Albanese in the corner and there was still the chance, a small chance that Gonzalo Quesada might.?
Yeh right! He thumped the conversion over and then his seventh penalty for good measure.
Then, with loads of added time, Ireland laid siege to the Puma line. And if their assault was fierce, the Argentine defence was vicious. Ireland tried the fifteen man lineout. They tried everything. The truth is they tried their hearts out.
The sense of disappointment in Irish rugby circles reached fever pitch and in all probability the defeat was the first nail in Warren Gatland’s coffin, but it was a big six incher. There was a sense that Ireland had been robbed of their rightful place in the quarter final of the World Cup Cup and in fact, with home advantage against France, we’d been robbed of a place in the World Cup semi-final. And if we’d gotten there, sure God know what might have happened.
And then if we made it to the final, sure then it’s a lottery. Fifteen against fifteen and..
But one wonders now why did we travel with such (over)confidence. And I don’t mean the squad. In the days before, what has since been referred to as the Lens debacle’ , the corporate gurus were working round the clock securing tickets, booking hotels for the killing’ that was going to be Ireland v France, RWC quarter-final 1999. Argentina in France ? Not a problem.
But the fact is that this was a helluva good Argentina side. When we’d played them in a pre-World Cup game at Lansdowne Road in August, we’d won 32-24, so we knew they could play a bit. And after the Lens game they took on the French and gave them the fright of their Gallic lives. In that game France raced into a 17 point lead after just 12 minutes and if Argentina were anything other than a good outfit, they’d have succumbed there and then.
But they didn’t. They came roaring back and with ten minutes to go, the game was delicately balanced as a clearly rattled French side clung to a 30-26 lead.
And by then Argentina had lost their metronomic kicker, Quesada, to injury. Christophe Lamaison boomed over a 45 metre penalty to settle French nerves and late tries from Philippe Bernat-Salles and Xavier Garbajosa settled a thrilling game.
So it’s time really to set the record straight. There was no debacle in Lens. There was a very disappointing defeat. But the signs were there had we bothered to look and the signs since point to the fact that Ireland lost to a good Argentina side.
And with a bit of luck we might have won it. And deserved to.
And then who knows.With home advantage against France ?
And anything can happen in a semi-final.
And everyone knows a final’s a lottery. Fifteen against fifteen……..