Rugby Union: France reveal size of Ashton's task

DAVID HUGHES reports from Lansdowne Road Ireland (12) 15 France (12) 32 Tries Venditti 3, Galthie Cons Castagnede 3 Elwood 5 Pens Castagnede 2
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Brian Ashton's presence may yet ensure that this was the start of a fresh new chapter in Irish rugby but if so the beginnings belonged to a very dog-eared script.

The Irish pack competed well for an hour but the backs never looked like manufacturing a try before a non-vintage French side pulled clear in the final quarter with their third and fourth tries.

But despite the predictable rediscovery of Ireland's traditional fire and brimstone, and with it some great support from the home crowd, age- old inabilities - notably an inability to create tries, were also reinforced.

Commenting on this, Ashton said: "We didn't really get into attacking situations close to the French line. We attacked quite effectively from a long way out but we need to develop continuity in our games. It's very difficult to score at international level from 50 to 60 yards out."

Yet the feeling persisted that if ever the French cockerel was ripe for plucking then this was the day - first up in January away from home. Aside from which there were a brace of defeats to South Africans, the eclipse of Toulouse in the European Cup, three defections from their first choice line-up and injuries to both half-backs during the game.

Yet the flip side of that coin is that France probably would not have asked for a more preferable first game themselves. Although Emile Ntamack and Thomas Castaignede were not in prime form, the French could rely on their maul and when required exploited the blind side and James Topping's flawed defence brilliantly for left wing David Venditti to score three tries.

Jean-Claude Skrela and Pierre Villepreux made much of the French team spirit, the latter expressing one "criticism", saying: "When the French team had the ball and the space to attack unfortunately they were not able to do so all the time. But that was a very interesting match for me as an analysis will be done which will bring us more in the future. There is a lot of work to be done."

Indeed the French look like a team still trying to find itself, or its style, the difference being that they have a far better base to work off and are further down the road than Ashton's team.

The former Bath supremo was hardly likely to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear in less than a week. All told, therefore, it was a worthy enough effort. Eric Miller was outstanding in only his second cap, making more inroads over the gain line than any other Irish player, David Corkery made some good hits - especially on Abdel Benazzi - and Jeremy Davidson augmented his good line-out work around the pit. However the dynamic Keith Wood was sorely missed when replaced by Allen Clarke before the interval with a shoulder injury which will sideline him from two to six weeks.

The French also had their own fall-out from the game. The Irish yesterday protested over a second-half incident in which Clarke was allegedly kicked in the face. The matter is now with the French federation.

There were also yellow cards for both locks, Olivier Merle (for punching) and Hugues Miorin (for stamping) and what Villepreux admitted was the concession of too many penalties. A dog-eared Irish script, and French ill discipline away from home? Plus ca change.

IRELAND: C O'Shea (London Irish); J Topping (Ballymena), J Bell (Northampton), M Field (Malone), D Crotty (Garryowen); E Elwood (Lansdowne), N Hogan (Terenure); N Popplewell (Newcastle), K Wood (Harlequins, capt), P Wallace (Saracens), P Johns (Saracens), J Davidson (London Irish), D Corkery (Bristol), W McBride (Malone), E Miller (Leicester). Replacements: A Clarke (Northampton) for Wood, 39; K McQuilkin (Lansdowne) for Field, 44; P Flavin (Blackrock) for Popplewell, 85.

FRANCE: J-L Sadourny (Colomiers); E Ntamack (Toulouse), S Glas (Bourgoin), T Castaignede (Toulouse), D Venditti (Brive); A Penaud (Brive), F Galthie (Colomiers); C Califano (Toulouse), M Dal Maso (Agen), F Tournaire (Narbonne), O Merle (Montferrand), H Miorin (Toulouse), A Benazzi (Agen, capt), P Benetton (Agen), F Pelous (Dax). Replacements: P Carbonneau (Brive) for Galthie , 42; R Castel (Beziers) for Miorin, 62.

Referee: A Watson (South Africa) .