Rugby Union / Five Nations' Championship: Quicksilver French outrun slow march of Elwood's boot

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France . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .35

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THE suspicion that the Five Nations' Championship will boil down to the match between France and England here in March was reinforced by a predictable sequence of events and a less predictable response from Gerry Murphy, the Ireland coach. 'I'd love to have a ticket for that match,' Murphy said.

He was simply being realistic after accepting the seemingly inevitable outcome of yet another lost weekend in France. Eric Elwood had two candles on his birthday cake when Ireland last beat France in Paris in 1972. The way things have developed it is difficult to see how Ireland will ever beat France on French soil.

'We are not good enough to win in Paris,' Noel Murphy, the Irish team manager, admitted. 'We were well prepared but we were beaten by a better side.' While that statement can be an epitaph for most of the home countries who cross the channel, Ireland's game plan was too limited and they looked no higher than Elwood's boot laces. 'Do you think England will run the ball against France?' Noel Murphy said, beginning to lose patience with some seriously pessimistic inquisitors.

Ireland probably did not have much choice on what they considered to be the best way to tackle the French. It all revolved around Elwood's right foot. At one point Noel and Gerry may even have harboured thoughts, albeit of soupcon proportions, of returning to Dublin as victors. Elwood's impressive strike rate kept Ireland in touch but in the end justice, thank goodness, was done.

While Ireland, particularly well served by Neil Francis in the line- out, made no attempt to play any sort of game beyond Elwood, France were desperately keen to please. Some of their rugby was exquisite and, although a rush of points near the end altered the complexion of the match, the reality is that they could have had eight tries instead of four.

On numerous occasions, the break having been made, a Frenchman selfishly delayed the final pass to an unmarked colleague. 'It took us some time to get into the rhythm of the game,' Olivier Roumat, the captain, said. When they did they were irresistible. Champagne versus stout. Noel Murphy thought that France were a better side than 12 months ago when they won the championship, with three victories out of four, losing only to England, by 16-15, at Twickenham.

When England study the video of this game they will take heart from Ireland's successes in the line-out but will have to find a way of

defending against the quicksilver skills of the French half-backs Fabien Galthie and Alain Penaud, the centre Thierry Lacroix and the full-back Jean-Luc Sadourny. Penaud and Sadourny, in particular, give the impression that the best is yet to come. Noel Murphy described Penaud as the hardest working stand-off he had ever seen.

'We showed we are ready to take risks with the disadvantages that that brings,' Pierre Berbizier, the coach, said. The advantages were worth waiting for. 'Ireland were faithful to their tradition and in the line-out they put us off our game. It took us a long time to take advantage of our domination. They had a good goalkicker and a good defence but it was not sufficient. They have to go further.'

Fred Howard, the former international referee, sat in the press box, compiling statistics on the match for Unisys and one of the most revealing was that France spent 32 minutes in Irish territory in the second half. We knew they were faster but they were also fitter. 'It's too soon to say who is going to win the championship,' Noel Murphy said. 'I would question some areas of France's play. We competed well in the scrums and line-outs.'

For the most part the experimental Irish back row, up against a formidable trio, were anonymous and when Philippe Benetton crashed over for a try from the tail of a line- out in the 32nd minute the game was effectively up, although Elwood continued to give an impression of a specialist kicker employed by American football. He made France pay for their indiscretions but as Jim Fleming awarded a flood of penalties, Lacroix also filled his boots, compiling 20 points, matching Elwood's 15 from kicks and he also scored France's second try, beating Brian Robinson in a blind-side move.

On a couple of occasions Elwood had kicks charged down but this was less to do with the quality of Michael Bradley's service than with the stand-off's lack of pace. At one point Elwood was even knocked over by the French hooker, Jean-Michel Gonzales. No disgrace in that though. This is a very speedy Gonzales. 'France have set a very high standard for the rest,' Bradley said.

What Ireland proved, in their limited ambition, is that goalkicking alone is not sufficient to restrain France.

Ireland's greatest contribution came by way of a pre-match aperitif, Guinness and oysters provided by Kitty O'Shea's. It is the only pub in Paris with an all-day licence. Why? 'They like us,' said the landlord. The trouble is, Irish hospitality extends to Parc des Princes itself.

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); A 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).