Adrian O’Farrell is delighted but not ecstatic but at least he was happy. We think!
The French weren’t happy. The Irish weren’t happy. Draws in rugby are a bit like that, aren’t they? Like kissing your sister, they say.
I look at it slightly differently. If we had won, I’d have been ecstatic. As we only drew, however, I am only delighted. A draw in Paris is a very, very good result for almost every country in the world. And for Ireland of all nations, given our record, it’s pretty blooming terrific.
The RTE panel pre-match made for an interesting representation of much of the public feeling. Conor O’Shea did a fine job of handling George Hook’s fulminations. While there was agreement on what Ireland needed to do to win, there was disagreement over the likelihood of it happening.
George seemed to think that when he was a younger man with a full head of hair and all his own teeth, he had some chance of getting it together with Brigitte Bardot but he has no chance now (at last, a little reality kicking in) and that this was somehow analogous to Ireland’s chances.
His point, insofar as it could be divined, was that if you haven’t been playing a particular way on a regular basis then it is very difficult to just turn up and produce it.
But that’s precisely what Ireland proceeded to do. I opined last week that Kidney might be a natural conservative, but that he was a brave and intelligent coach.
As I surmised, he duly weighed up his options and arrived at the conclusion that blitzing France, playing with width and taking the game to France was preferable to the traditional slow death.
Ireland fixed so many things in this match, you couldn’t but be happy. Traditional slow start? Fixed. Line speed in defence? Fixed. Kicking too long? Fixed. Level of aggression? Fixed. Backline on the same wavelength? Fixed.
What was key though to all this was that Ireland played with the fire I talked of last week. The ice bit wasn’t quite so apparent, but of the two you need the fire more.
The defence pushed up at great pace and used the umbrella to cut down France’s option for going wide. The ultimate reward came when Tommy Bowe picked off Rougerie’s errant pass for the first try. Against Wales, he wouldn’t have been there to pick it off. Some of the hits were seismic.
Ireland threw down a marker that they were here to play and went out hunting tackles and gaining significant yardage without the ball.
The other key aspect that needed to go right if we were to compete was that our scrum held up against a unit that had brutalised Scotland the week before. Ireland held this up well and you have to credit Kidney for his selection of O’Callaghan against most popular opinion as Ross was always going to need everything behind him he could muster.
O’Callaghan’s extra avoirdupois must have contributed. There was a point in the second quarter where it looked like Ireland were running out of steam in this area but to their credit they responded well and when the subs came on it didn’t suffer either.
Ireland also showed great resilience in the third quarter when France started to apply the squeeze. The close-in defence was good and when we finally emerged from the pressure we struck with a brilliantly worked try.
There were plenty of good things in it, from O’Brien’s steal of the ball at the breakdown to the hands across the line and especially Earls canniness in timing his pass well and just doing enough to take Poitrenaud out of the equation to allow Bowe’s run to the line.
Bowe did very well to chip and gather to score but I’m sure he will admit that he got particularly lucky with the bounce as he actually sliced his chip to the right. Normally that ball will bounce to the right, not left as it did.
We even got a rare break from officialdom. Referee Pearson could have carded Cian Healy for his ‘lazy running’ in the first half, but mercifully didn’t. It reminded me of a Leinster Senior Cup Final between Terenure and Lansdowne from the late 80s when Lansdowne’s Donal Spring found himself running back in the heart of the Terenure backline and received the ball at third centre. He promptly about turned and sprinted away to score a valid try. I can still picture Paul Haycock’s face.
Back in studio, George had done a 180 of equally startling proportions. From not being able to see how Ireland could win, he now couldn’t see how France could win. He didn’t even advance the ‘subject to the next score’ qualifier.
Everyone else I know, however, understood that France at home could close a gap like that inside five minutes, especially if they got the next score. So it wasn’t all that surprising that they achieved it within twenty. However, Ireland’s propensity to concede penalties was frustrating and perhaps belied a lack of trust in their defence.
When that defence was breached by Fofana, it was only after France benefited from a fair degree of luck as they initially botched their handling and it looked like Ireland might get a useful fly-hack downfield. It came as cold comfort as the team regrouped behind the line that France had still failed to engineer a constructive move.
The really impressive aspect of this performance, however, was that after 20 minutes of near constant pressure from France and with all the momentum now behind the home team who had just equalised, Ireland came back storming at France.
When France get on top at home and the crowd get in the mood, turning things around must seem like reversing an oil tanker. However, Ireland changed the match as quickly as George changed his mind. Cue ten minutes pounding at the French who, it must be said, did extremely well not to concede so much as a penalty.
While Ireland did brilliantly to turn the tide, there was frustration in the way that we lost a crucial lineout five metres from the French line (this has become a bit of a habit) and also when the wet ball slipped out of Gordon D’Arcy’s grasp when attempting a simple pass, allowing the French relief when under the cosh.
Ireland also deserve credit for not conceding any penalties or affording France prime drop goal position when under pressure themselves at the death. After the Wales experience, it would have been too cruel.
What this team has done is to show future Ireland teams the way. To prosper in Paris, you have to attack them when they have the ball and show courage on the ball as well. Fire and ice. We’ll get there yet if we maintain this defensive strategy.
At some point in the distant future when our planet has been colonised by aliens, the commander of the imperial forces when reporting back to base command on the pursuits of the locals, will use footage of Rob Kearney chasing his own kicks and picking the ball off the nose of opponents as an example of one of the skills unique to this indecipherably complex local pastime called rugby.