Final fling for France

Five Nations' Championship: Geogheghan streches his legs but a late flurry leaves tenacious Ireland with no reward
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The Independent Online
IN A patchy game, two sides who have disappointed themselves this season did their best to stitch their reputations together. And with some success.

Ireland, despite losing for the third time and with only Wales to play, kept France in their sights for nearly three-quarters of the match, and in one exhilarating moment, they at last produced a situation in which they put their flying wing, Simon Geoghegan, in for a try in the corner. And France, with four tries, got the brass bands playing as though this had been a title-winning victory instead of a face-saving 50 per cent record in the Championship.

Although their coach, Pierre Berbizier, could no longer talk of conquering Europe as a prelude to taking on the world next summer, the French were still desperate to break even. To this end, he made five unforced changes which included reinstating Olivier Merle, villain of the Ricky Evans butting incident in January, and bringing back Marc Ccillon and Louis Armary, with the purpose of meeting fire with fire at Lansdowne Road.

Ireland's changes were as much the response to a late flurry of doctors' notes as to their two straight defeats in the competition so far. This led to a first cap at 35 for a man who had not played senior rugby until he was 28, the Ulster lock, David Tweed.

More considered was the overdue recall of Eric Elwood at stand-off. Dropping him in the supposed interest of seeing the ball spread wider rather than sailing into the corners, had always seemed quixotic. Nothing was finally proved in this game, but the balance of evidence was certainly in Elwood's favour.

Geoghegan got into the early action after France had kicked off into a bitingly cold wind. But it was in defence, as the French came through on a ball kicked over the Irish line. He dealt with that soundly enough, and as the Irish forwards mauled their way back through the French pack, Geoghegan was next seen reaching for a long pass sent out by Michael Bradley. Had he been able to catch it, the way would have been open for a try. But like all the other moves of the opening quarter, it fell victim to the caprice of the wind.

In that spell, Elwood missed an apparently simple penalty from 22 metres out, the ball just curling past the left upright. Then Yann Delaigue, the new French stand-off, and Elwood failed with drop goal attempts at either end. And Emile N'Tamack, taking over the French place-kicking with the dropping of Thierry Lacroix, was off target with two penalties of his own.

After 25 minutes, N'Tamack put France ahead with his third penalty attempt. There was one remaining chance for France to improve their score when Jean-Luc Sadourny, who is emerging as their most accomplished attacking back, made ground on the right and kicked ahead, only for the wind to carry the ball across the dead-ball line.

Strangely France seemed more settled playing into the breeze, and in the second minute after the interval they conjured up one of those moves that belonged to warmer, balmier days. Philippe Saint-Andr had come across from the left wing to reinforce the right, and made the early running before turning the ball back to the other wing, N'Tamack.

And when he got into difficulties, Delaigue was there to back him up and complete the score. N'Tamack, however, failed with the conversion, and although he has a powerful kick in generally the right direction, the French still have not convincingly solved their place-kicking problems for the World Cup.

Delaigue's try was a setback for Ireland, but hardly a disgrace for a side that had been forced to substitute Maurice Field for the injured Brendan Mullin at half-time, and was showing signs of conceding the forward struggle to the French. Eighteen minutes later, just after France had been forced to substitute Philippe Gallart for Louis Armary at prop, they still half-wheeled and won a scrum five metres out from the Irish line, Philippe Benetton coming away with the ball for a try. N'Tamack converted, and France had a 15-point margin of protection.

It was comfortable enough, despite a purple patch from Ireland which followed five minutes later, bringing Geoghegan's try and some deserved encouragement for Ireland's fans. It came from a quick, coherent move in which the ball was fed out by Bradley to Danaher, and then exploited with perfect timing by the substitute, Field, who sent a chip-kick into the corner for the wing to touch down. To answer the other question in a match which had given him few opportunities, Elwood converted cleanly from the touchline.

But France had not yet finished. In the dying minutes, both their wings went through for tries - ironically on the same side of the field. N'Tamack did it on the blindside of a scrum, and Saint-Andr moments later in an almost identical position as he waited for the ball to emerge from a maul. N'Tamack handed over the conversion of his own try to Sadourny, who looked as though he was unfamiliar with the whole procedure. Then N'Tamack returned to take the final kick, sending the ball rolling around near the 22-metre line. Not an impressive finish, but France have plenty of time to worry about that before South Africa.

Ireland: J Staples (Harlequins); S Geoghegan (Bath), B Mullin (Blackrock), P Danaher (Garryowen), N Woods (Blackrock); E Elwood (Lansdowne), M Bradley (Constitution, capt); N Popplewell (Wasps) T Kingston (Dolphin), P Clohessy (Young Munster), D Tweed (Ballymena), G Fulcher (Constitution), E Halvey (Shannon), D McBride (Malone), A Foley (Shannon).

Replacement: M Field (Malone) for Mullin.

France: J-L Sadourny (Colomiers); E N'Tamack (Toulouse), P Sella (Agen), F Mesnel (Racing Club) P Saint-Andr (Montferrand, capt); Y Delaigue (Toulon), G Accoceberry (Begles); L Armary (Lourdes), J-M Gonzalz (Bayonne), C Califano (Toulouse), O Merle (Montferrand), O Brouzet (Grenoble), P Benetton (Agen), A Benazzi (Agen), M Ccillon (Bourgoin).

Replacement: P Gallart (Bziers) for Armary.

Referee: C Thomas (Wales).