Rugby Union / Five Nations' Championship: Deadly Lacroix drums up a storm

Click to follow
The Independent Online
France. . . .35

Ireland. . . 15

HISTORY has not been kind to the Irish. Having come to Paris in a more optimistic frame of mind than for several seasons, and totted up 15 points through the metronomic place-kicking of the stand-off Eric Elwood, they still could not make a break with the past. They had not won in this city since 1972, when games were still being played in the ramshackle stadium at Colombes, and again they were put in their historic place by four tries, three of them converted, and three penalties - the French master of kicking and running, Thierry Lacroix, who operates from centre, scoring a remarkable 20 points.

What could be said for the Irish is that they played as close and committed again as they were allowed to do, and were not in any way disgraced. But France, the European champions, were simply biding their time before they could put some space between themselves and the Irish. In the final quarter, they exploded out of their frustration, and the crowd, in which there were unusually large gaps, gave them a heroic ovation with drums and pipes.

Before the game, the Irish had valid reasons to believe in their luck. A string of 11 defeats had ended in three consecutive victories, which included two of the jewels in the triple crown at the end of last season. Now came the rare chance to catch the French team - fair-weather players, according to the script - raw-handed and stiff in mid-January.

Which was not quite how it fell out. Instead, they had to rely very largely on the icy kicking of Elwood. When Ireland won their opening scrum he sent the ball high in front of the French posts, and when they held their first line-out, he found a majestic touch on the far side of the field. And that was to be the pattern to which the Irish played throughout.

Unfortunately for them, the French had a kicker of the same nerveless style, Lacroix. He gave France the lead in the sixth minute, and regained it for them 10 minutes later after Elwood's opener. He then improved it after Neil Francis was severely admonished for going into a ruck with his feet.

The best was yet to come from Elwood, a midfield penalty kicked from two metres inside his own half. And to a degree, his tactical kicking had succeeded in tying down the French. Up to this time, they had only once broken loose, when they massed on the right side of the field. Philippe Saint-Andre had crossed over to deliver what might have been the coup de grace - a chip kick into the corner. But although the right wing, Philippe Bernat- Salles, exultantly touched down, the ball was judged to have crossed the sideline.

Just after the half-hour, Philippe Benetton broke the pattern by charging through from the line-out, which Lacroix converted with seeming inevitability. But still Elwood kept the Irish in touch with two more magnificent penalties, and they changed ends with only four points in it at 16-12.

France restarted as though they had had enough of this cheese-paring, with Lacroix this time in full flight through the centre. A blindside run from ground gained from Alain Penaud's kick into the corner, and Lacroix was through again, breaking the tackles and rolling over the line for a try which he excitedly greeted with a punch in the air before composing himself to convert it coolly from the touchline. For France, the stalemate was broken.

Elwood came back with his fifth penalty, but the French ran the ball from their next two, and indeed ran every other opportunity, the immaculate Sella and the adventurous Jean-Luc Sadourny carving through, swaying and stepping out of tackles. And convincing as the Irish defence was at the last gasp, it was remarkable that until three minutes from the finish the French did not score again.

Then they produced their finest try after one attack had broken down and been resurrected. A series of long passes put Saint-Andre away on the left, and the magnificent run inches from the touchline took him out of the reach of Richard Wallace. Nor was this the end, for a final flurry had Olivier Merle stretching his considerable length to reach over the line for the concluding try. For once, Lacroix failed in the conversion, his only error of the match. But it will not give future opponents much cheer to know that he is fallible. Just.

France: Tries Benetton, Lacroix, Saint-Andre, Merle; Conversions Lacroix 3; Penalties Lacroix 3. Ireland: Penalties Elwood 5.

FRANCE: J-L Sadourny (Colomiers); P Bernat-Salles (Pau), P Sella (Agen), T Lacroix (Dax), P Saint-Andre (Montferrand); D Penaud (Brive), F Galthie (Colomiers); L Armary (Lourdes), J-M Gonzales (Bayonne), P Gallart (Beziers), O Merle (Grenoble), O Roumat (Dax, capt), P Benetton (Agen), M Cecillon (Bourgoin), A Benazzi (Agen).

IRELAND: C O'Shea (Lansdowne); R Wallace, P Danaher (both Garryowen), V Cunningham (St Mary's College), S Geoghegan (London Irish); E Elwood (Lansdowne), M Bradley (Cork Constitution, capt); N Popplewell (Greystones), T Kingston (Dolphin), P Clohessy (Young Munster), P Johns (Dungannon), N Francis (Old Belvedere), M Galwey (Shannon), B Robinson (Ballymena), K O'Connell (Sunday's Well). Replacement: G Halpin (London Irish) for Clohessy, 57.

Referee: J Fleming (Scotland).