Rugby Union: Five Nations' Championship - Heartbreak for Humphreys

Ireland 9 France 10 Penalties: Humphreys 3 Try: Dourthe Conversion: Castaignede Penalty: Castaignede Half-time: 6-0 Attendance: 49,000
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The Independent Online
THE GREATEST legal minds in Christendom are divided on the issue: was it the law of the jungle that left Ireland's Grand Slam ambitions face down in the Dublin mud on Saturday, or the law of Murphy? Both judicial philosophies were very much in evidence at Lansdowne Road during the most gripping drama staged at the grand old stadium since the World Cup quarter- final with Australia eight years ago, but on balance, as the best judges like to say, Murphy gets the nod.

Certainly, David Humphreys now subscribes to the theory that if it can possibly go wrong, it will. Seven days previously, it had taken the loveable little Ulsterman a full 50 minutes to fight his way to the dressing-room after leading his province to a famous European Cup victory over Colomiers. This time, a random drugs test prevented him reaching the bar for the best part of three hours. Given that Humphreys did not much feel like socialising in the immediate aftermath of a numbing one-point defeat for which he held himself largely responsible, he would not have worried had he taken three weeks to produce the required sample for the men in white coats.

"You could say I've just lived the cliche; a week is a long time in rugby," he smiled sadly as visions of his final fluffed penalty shot at the French posts gatecrashed their way into his mind's eye for the zillionth time. "I'd willingly have traded the European Cup experience, wonderful though it was, for victory over the French. That would have been for the whole of Ireland, not just Ulster. Do I blame myself? I had a kick to win the match and missed it, simple as that. The guys have been very supportive but, yes, I'm feeling it right now."

Warren Gatland and his fellow selectors will be feeling it too, for just at the moment, Ireland possesses more precision kickers per head of population than it has priests. Eric Elwood, Simon Mason and Niall Woods would all feature in a premier league of European marksmen and while Humphreys' quicksilver brilliance as a running outside-half - witness his shredding of the French midfield during the first half on Saturday - and Conor O'Shea's bravura contribution at full-back more than justified Gatland's omission of the first two, the coach would now find it difficult to convince a single emerald soul that he was right to ignore Woods."David is a fine kicker," Gatland insisted, his flat New Zealand timbre betraying no obvious sign of the gut-wrenching disappointment he had just suffered. "He performed the role superbly in South Africa last summer, landing seven from seven in one game. It's not an issue, not a concern."

Really? That last injury-time shot was undeniably a brute, albeit a 22- metre brute; well to the left of the sticks and directly into the teeth of a gusting wind, it would have tested the nerve of a professional assassin and the faith of a saint. However, as Humphreys glumly admitted, his three first-half misses were far less forgivable. Had he succeeded with just one of them, the French would have found their hosts wickedly difficult to reel in.

They were that, anyway. The Tricolores felt compelled to indulge in some serious hanky-panky after the interval, simply to get some purchase on a match that seemed almost to be happening without them. "One 10-minute spell in the second half was indescribable," gasped Paul Wallace, the Saracens prop whose born-awkward approach to the science of scrummaging had proved far too much for Christian Califano to handle on his return to big-time international duty. "It was like nothing I'd ever experienced; kicks, gouges, punches, the lot. It was a matter of standing up to them and that we did, I'm proud to say."

Ironically, it was Wallace's own breach of the rules that gave the wonderfully compelling Thomas Castaignede the three points that really mattered. Peter Marshall, the Australian referee whose inquiries into a positively Tysonesque piece of violence perpetrated on the prone figure of Keith Wood was hopelessly undermined by his inability to distinguish between the gazelle-like Philippe Bernat-Salles and the ox-like Philippe Benetton, trusted his flawed eyesight sufficiently to deliver an offside verdict against the Irish tight-head as he scragged Philippe Carbonneau at an 80th-minute ruck.

"I didn't think I was off," Wallace moaned. "And besides, someone gave me a bunch of fives for my trouble. The penalty should have been reversed, that's for sure." Castaignede has always carried a splinter of ice in his molten Gallic veins and there was not the faintest possibility of a miscue, especially as he had spent the whole game playing the cleverest of hands behind a slovenly French pack.

Along with Thomas Lievremont, a cunning wolf of a No 8, and the insanely committed Richard Dourthe, whose psychotic aggression earned him a scarcely credible wrestle-over try near the Irish posts to break open the game on 62 minutes, the Castres stand-off was the pick of the off-colour Tricolores. It was intimidating indeed to watch the French squeezing out a result against an inspired Irish side with only three players fully on their mettle.The Irish will be back; Eric Miller, Jeremy Davidson, Wallace and the elemental Wood were quite outstanding on Saturday, and they will frighten the living daylights out of the powder-puff Welsh forwards at Wembley in 12 days' time. But when the big prizes are on offer, it takes a Castaignede to strike gold.

"No, of course I did not think of missing the last penalty," he said, chirpily. "I train all week to kick goals like that." So, too, does David Humphreys. It's a cruel world.

IRELAND: C O'Shea (London Irish); J Bishop (London Irish), J Bell (Dungannon), K Maggs (Bath), G Dempsey (Terenure); D Humphreys (Dungannon), C McGuinness (St Mary's); P Clohessy (Young Munster), K Wood (Harlequins), P Wallace (Saracens), P Johns (Saracens, capt), J Davidson (Castres), E Miller (Terenure), V Costello (St Mary's), D O'Cuinnegain (Sale). Replacements: R Henderson (Wasps) for Bell, 14; T Brennan (St Mary's) for Costello, 52; J Fitzpatrick (Dungannon) for Clohessy, 64.

FRANCE: E Ntamack (Toulouse); P Bernat-Salles (Biarritz), F Comba (Stade Francais), R Dourthe (Stade Francais), T Lombard (Stade Francais); T Castaignede (Castres), P Carbonneau (Brive); C Califano (Toulouse), R Ibanez (Perpignan, capt), F Tournaire (Toulouse), O Brouzet (Begles-Bordeaux), F Pelous (Toulouse), P Benetton (Agen), T Lievremont (Perpignan), O Magne (Brive). Replacements: S Marconnet (Stade Francais) for Califano, h-t; T Cleda (Pau) for Pelous, 70; A Gomes (Stade Francais) for Lombard, 81.

Referee: P Marshall (Australia).

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