France take little comfort from draw with Ireland
France 17 Ireland 17: Notoriously, this fixture fell to the late-evening frost at the back end of last month, and while the great and good who run the Six Nations Championship may think they have put that embarrassing incident behind them, they will never live it down completely.
Yesterday, in the pouring rain, enough Frenchmen froze for sufficiently long periods of the rearranged contest to blow their chances of another Grand Slam. Like the committee men who had messed up so badly three weeks previously, they will not be forgiven for their sins any time soon.
There were times here when Les Bleus played like millionaires. Unfortunately for their coach, Philippe Saint-André, an amiable soul in the general run of things but a bag of nerves on match day even when proceedings are going nicely to plan, they spent rather longer looking like rugby's equivalent of the Eurozone: a glorious idea gone horribly wrong. As someone once said of Wagner's music, there were brilliant moments and dire half-hours.
They had their opponents on toast – French toast, you might say – at the scrum and reduced them to cinders at the line-out. When Clément Poitrenaud ran from deep in broken field, slipping away from tackles almost at will, anything looked possible. When the Tricolore tight forwards gathered behind the inspirational Imanol Harinordoquy and drove upfield in close formation, it was difficult to see how the Irish, for all their ferocity at the tackle area, could survive the onslaught.
Yet Saint-André's men somehow contrived to hand their opponents a 17-6 lead – their error-count was off the scale well before the interval – and after restoring equality in the third quarter, during which they were outstanding in most departments, France let things slip again, allowing Ireland, drawing deep from the well of competitive spirit, to dominate territorially in a crucial spell after the clock had ticked past the hour.
Saint-André said afterwards that the wet weather had played a significant part, but it was a lame excuse. As a triumphant Clive Woodward famously noted after a seriously damp World Cup semi-final between England and Les Blues in Sydney in 2003: "It rains in France too, you know. I've been there on holiday."
So what went wrong? Or rather, who went wrong? Saint-André avoided blaming the beleaguered president of his country, Nicolas Sarkozy, who turned up to watch after deciding to use the free tickets on offer while he was still in office. Sarkozy even headed to the French dressing room after the final whistle – a decision that may or may not have proved popular amongst the frustrated inhabitants. "If anything, he was more positive about the result than me," the coach said, diplomatically.
When he watches the video footage, Saint-André will not be so quick to absolve the centre Aurélien Rougerie. If Rougerie produced an astonishing performance in last year's World Cup final in New Zealand, which the All Blacks were profoundly fortunate to win by a single point, he was nowhere near the same player here.
His first calamity occurred as early as the 13th minute: looking to launch Poitrenaud down the left, he threw a pass so predictable and so underpowered that it would have shamed a seven-year-old. Scarcely able to believe his luck, Tommy Bowe barely had to change stride to complete the interception and stroll to the line for the opening score. "Points for free," was the chosen description of Paul O'Connell, the Ireland captain.
Later in the half, the same Rougerie would butcher the kind of overlap French midfielders have spent many decades maximising in their collective sleep. Again, Poitrenaud was the poor patsy, this time receiving a heavy blow to the ribs into the bargain. If the two men are still talking by the time England take the field here in six days' time, it will be a triumph of human understanding.
Saint-André did not single out Rougerie for criticism, but he was crystal-clear that the precision of his side's back-line play had been a long way short of scratch.
"We're still in the Championship – we can still win this Six Nations – but we'll have to be much cleverer and much more disciplined against our old friends," he said. "England have not played this weekend, so they will be fresher physically and mentally. We will need to play like a desperate team, because it is important for us to win in front of our own people."
This was always likely to be a severe test for Ireland, whose record in Paris since winning the 2000 fixture on the back of Brian O'Driscoll's youthful genius had been very poor indeed. Yet thanks to Rougerie's generosity they were able to secure an early foothold, and when Bowe scored a second, infinitely more impressive chip-and-gather try a couple of minutes before the break – the visiting backs ran some defensive turnover ball from their own 22, allowing Keith Earls to free the wing with an excellent pass out of contact – a momentous victory looked probable.
But France, who had been restricted to a couple of finely-judged penalties from their scrum-half, Morgan Parra, were a different bowl of bouillabaisse from the restart.
Parra, who wastes not an ounce of energy in propelling the ball just far and high enough to nail the available points, was successful once again on 46 minutes, closing the gap to eight points. And within a trice, the Irish lead was all but obliterated. Poitrenaud, back in one piece, launched a trademark attack from deep and even though the Irish interfered with the sweep of the movement – by foul means as well as fair – the ball somehow found its way to Wesley Fofana, who outpaced Rob Kearney and scored his third try in as many internationals.
Cian Healy's transgression at a ruck set up by the impressive second-rower Pascal Papé allowed Parra to square it from left field, and when Ireland lost the combative scrum-half Connor Murray to what looked suspiciously like a knee ligament injury – the Munster player left the field on a stretcher, in excruciating pain – the odds favoured a big French finish.
Thanks in no small part to Kearney's heroics at full-back – the Test No 15 on the Lions tour of South Africa in 2009 will, on this showing, be the Test No 15 on the Lions tour of Australia in 2013 – that finish did not materialise.
Kearney's intelligent kicking kept the Irish back-row scavengers on the front foot and his security under the high ball denied the French the positional advantage they craved at the last knockings.
Lionel Beauxis, introduced late on with the instruction to drop a winning goal, had two attempts, neither of them memorable: the first went downwards instead of upwards; the second was charged down by the indefatigable flanker Stephen Ferris, just about the pick of the Irish loose trio, who refused to concede so much as an inch at the breakdown.
When France threw themselves into one last attack in stoppage time, it was Kearney who slammed the door on Julien Malzieu. As a final act, it could not have been more appropriate.
France: Try: Fofana. Penalties: Parra 4. Ireland : Tries: Bowe 2. Conversions: Sexton 2. Penalty: Sexton.
France: C Poitrenaud (Toulouse); V Clerc (Toulouse), A Rougerie (Clermont Auvergne), W Fofana (Clermont Auvergne), J Malzieu (Clermont Auvergne); F Trinh-Duc (Montpellier), M Parra (Clermont Auvergne); J-B Poux (Toulouse), D Szarzewski (Stade Français), N Mas (Perpignan), P Papé (Stade Français), Y Maestri (Toulouse), T Dusautoir (Toulouse, capt), J Bonnaire (Clermont Auvergne), I Harinordoquy (Biarritz). Replacements: V Debaty (Clermont Auvergne) for Poux, 52; W Servat (Toulouse) for Szarzewski, 52; L Nallet (Racing Métro) for Papé, 60; L Beauxis (Toulouse) for Poitrenaud, 67; L Picamoles (Toulouse) for Bonnaire, 70.
Ireland: R Kearney (Leinster); T Bowe (Ospreys), K Earls (Munster), G D'Arcy (Leinster), A Trimble (Ulster); J Sexton (Leinster), C Murray (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), M Ross (Leinster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), P O'Connell (Munster, capt), S Ferris (Ulster), S O'Brien (Leinster), J Heaslip (Leinster). Replacements: D Ryan (Munster) for O'Callaghan, 57; E Reddan (Leinster) for Murray 58; P O'Mahony (Munster) for O'Brien, 65; R O'Gara (Munster) for D'Arcy, 70; F McFadden (Leinster) for Trimble, 72; T Court (Ulster) for Healy, 74; S Cronin (Leinster) for Best, 74.
Referee: D Pearson (England).
Results so far France 30-12 Italy, Scotland 6-13 England, Ireland 21-23 Wales; Italy 15-19 England, Wales 27-13 Scotland; Ireland 42-10 Italy, England 12-19 Wales, Scotland 17-23 France; France 17-17 Ireland.
Remaining fixtures: 10 Mar Wales v Italy, Ireland v Scotland. 11 Mar France v England. 17 Mar Italy v Scotland, Wales v France, England v Ireland.
France Points Ireland
1 Tries 2
0/1 Conversions 2/2
4/5 Penalties 1/2
0/2 Drop goals 0/0
Phases of play
10/0 Scrums won/lost 3/0
11/0 Line-outs won/lost 5/3
4 Pens conceded 11
6 Mauls won 1
41 Ruck and drive 32
46 Ruck and pass 36
155 Passes completed 113
2 Line breaks 2
17 Possession kicked 18
2 Kicks to touch 3
80/4 Tackles made/missed 112/4
8 Offloads in tackle 7
6 Total errors made 9
93 In open play 69
16 In opponents' 22 22
32 At set-pieces 12
1 Turnovers won 4