French graft without art

STEVE BALE

reports from Durban

France 36 Ireland 12

Pierre Berbizier is wearying of being asked to supply champagne rugby, fed up with the limitless animadversion of his vast camp-following of French media. What more could they want of the coach than for his team to have qualified to play South Africa in next Saturday's World Cup semi- final back here at King's Park?

Well, quite a lot actually. In baking midday heat the Irish were almost peripheral to this quarter-final, contributing even less than the French to a match that would have been of numbing mediocrity had the anaesthetic not already been applied by Ireland's pool match against Wales.

In which case it was down to the French players to elevate the spirits, but the only spirits they elevated were their own, by winning. This was a victory based on vigour, rigour and the almost unerring place-kicking of Thierry Lacroix, France's tries finally occurring - almost by mischance - after 79 minutes and four minutes into injury time.

"I believe the champagne can be drunk by this French team," Berbizier insisted. "The problem is uncorking it." Perversely, if the French forwards play like this against the Springboks they could even win the match, just as they did on Saturday, by bashing the life out of it. Ill-served at half-back, the French backs were as peripheral as the entire Irish XV.

Against Scotland, France had been forced to get the ball moving as only they can, and they won gloriously at the death. Against Ireland there was no such necessity but, even if there had been, on this occasion it is hard to imagine the fizz being anything but flat. They were like the Irish in having no plan beyond getting down there and then seeing what turned up.

For Ireland this was a negativity which guaranteed defeat once the French pack had taken control. Failing to make their way too often into French territory, all they could think of - and, as Terry Kingston, the captain, admitted afterwards, it was pre-planned - was to kick. As ever, Irish talk of wanting to vary their play by running the ball was so much blarney.

It is a style known in the Emerald Isle as "boot, bollock and boot" and, supported by the sort of frenzied opening of which Ireland are sometimes capable, it was sufficient to beat the woebegone Welsh and even to cause the All Blacks a fleeting apprehension.

But a day-trip to Durban revealed the Irish to have already reached the limit - of their stamina, of their skill and also alas of their desire - when they were in Johannesburg. "We were lethargic and tired," Noel Murphy, the manager, said. The fact was, and Murphy must have known it, that by their very arrival in the last eight his side had shoved two fingers up at their multitude of critics back home.

If France had not been so awful, you might have imagined Ireland were competitive during the first half. But this was purely relative and, though four penalties each for Lacroix and Eric Elwood brought the antagonists to half-time at 12-12, once the French had the wind the conclusion was foregone.

Not that anything much - beyond another four Lacroix penalties which gave him eight and a share with Neil Jenkins and Gavin Hastings of one of the less agreeable world records - happened. For one thing France could not get the ball through their outside-half, Christophe Deylaud, whose play is as eccentric and erratic as his appearance.

The "Toulouse Tramp", shirt hanging out below his shorts like a nightie, might just as well have been sleepwalking for all the good he did France's back play and made so many crass errors that in the end you had to feel sorry for him. Berbizier will recall that when he put on a similar performance against England in February he asked to be dropped.

Finally, when the Irish were out on their feet and it no longer mattered, the cork began to be pulled when Lacroix's wandering behind his forwards suddenly brought Roumat and the exceptional Cabannes into action and Hueber, the relieved Deylaud and Cecillon combined to give Philippe Saint-Andre the try.

Then Brendan Mullin's pass intended for Simon Geoghegan was intercepted by Emile N'Tamack, who had a clear 95-yard run for the distant Irish line. This was not a cause for celebration. "You have the right to decide about the performance of the team," Berbizier growled at his French critics, who seem to be legion. "My job is to talk to my players." Fair enough: after this, they could do with a good talking-to.

FRANCE: J-L Sadourny (Colomiers); E N'Tamack (Toulouse), P Sella (Agen), T Lacroix (Dax), P Saint-Andre (Montferrand, capt); C Deylaud (Toulouse), A Hueber (Toulon), L Armary (Lourdes), J-M Gonzales (Bayonne), C Califano (Toulouse), O Merle (Montferrand), O Roumat (Dax), A Benazzi (Agen), M Cecillon (Bourgoin), L Cabannes (Racing Club).

IRELAND: C O'Shea (Lansdowne); D O'Mahony, B Mullin (Blackrock College), J Bell (Ballymena), S Geoghegan (Bath); E Elwood (Lansdowne), N Hogan (Terenure College); N Popplewell (Wasps), T Kingston (Dolphin, capt), G Halpin (London Irish), G Fulcher (Constitution), N Francis (Old Belvedere), D Corkery (Constitution), P Johns (Dungannon), D McBride (Malone). Replacement: E Halvey (Shannon) for Fulcher, 60.

Referee: E Morrison (England).

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