Rugby Union: Five Nations' Championship - A monkey becomes King Kong

They ended up black and blue, but the latest debacle against a victorious France was different
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The Independent Online
THE DYE was cast. Literally. Freshly painted advertisements on the playing surface left the players daubed in blue, French blue at that. Even the ball changed colour. All in all it looked like St Trinians on a bad ink day.

However, this latest debacle against the French was different. Warren Gatland has developed a most formidable pack of Ireland forwards who did not appear to miss the injured Malcolm O'Kelly in the second row or Andy Ward in the back row. The breakaway unit of Eric Miller, Victor Costello and Dion O'Cuinneagain were positively dynamic against France, as was Keith Wood, but there are still obvious problems at half back.

As France move a step nearer a third successive Grand Slam (they might be entitled to feel they can survive anything after this) the statistics reflect Ireland's lack of a cutting edge. This was their 14th successive defeat to the Tricolores during which time the try ratio is: France 56, Ireland 7. The monkey on Ireland's back has grown into King Kong.

Long before Thomas Castaignede kicked the winning penalty in the 79th minute, Irish observers were fearing the worst and the worst, they believed, was inevitable. It has happened so often it is almost as if it is preordained. Heroic but futile. Dog day afternoon or, as the French would have it, deja vu.

The closest Ireland, who lost in Paris last season by two points, came to a try was when O'Cuinneagain, peeling on the short side of a 14-man line-out, was tackled into touch by Richard Dourthe a yard short of the line. Dourthe's claim for the man of the match award was strengthened when he scored the only try, courtesy of a Renault-like drive from his pack, in the 57th minute.

However, apart from Dourthe's significant contribution, the French had little else to offer. As Toulouse, Stade Francias and Colomiers had been overawed by Ulster, France, for most of the match, fell under the spell of the Irish forwards. It would have been poetic justice had David Humphreys accepted the lifeline thrown to him in injury time.

"We played with huge enthusiasm and achieved plenty of clever moves," Jean Claude Skrela, the France coach, said. Had Gatland uttered those words it would have been more understandable.

"I told the players at half time, when we were 6-0 down, to keep the ball in their hands and believe in victory," Skrela added. "We kicked too much in the first half but when it mattered I was satisfied with our defence. That performance will mature the side at the start of World Cup year."

By and large the indiscipline for which France are infamous was kept in check. In the opinion of the Ireland selector Donal Lenihan, the same could not be said of the Irish. "We played some great rugby," he said. "Our defence was outstanding but our discipline let us down. The players were shattered at the late score but it isn't the end of the world."

Paddy Johns, the Ireland captain, said the performance "gives us huge belief that we can win the Triple Crown." How? For all their passion, power and physical presence, Ireland find it extremely difficult to score tries and they are not too clever in the goal kicking department.

The pluck of the Irish is not in doubt but luck? It is not true that fortune favours the brave. As for Castaignede's winning penalty, it was awarded for offside against Paul Wallace but that was one of Peter Marshall's more dubious decisions.

Castaignede (he was not quite the same after being nearly cut in half by a thunderous tackle from Costello) will be a free agent this summer when his contract with Castres expires and he may follow Thierry Lacroix and Alain Penaud into the Allied Dunbar Premiership.

"I'm always being asked when I'm coming to England," the 24-year-old stand-off said. "Maybe next year or the year after. I want to play outside of France and I'd like one or two years in England. Whoever I join it won't just be for money. It will have to be the right club who play the right way."

France scarcely played the right way on Saturday but they are blessed in a way in that Ireland seem to be damned and they have until 6 March to prepare for the visit of Wales to Paris. It is not conceivable that the Welsh forwards can give the French as hard a time as Ireland, some of whose players seemed prepared to die (or dye) for the cause.