Rugby Union: Irish could kick themselves

Five Nations' Championship: An ill wind blows for Humphreys as penalty miss lets French off the hook
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Ireland 9 France 10

Pens: Humphreys 3 Try: Dourthe

Con: Castaignede Pen: Castaignede

Half-time: 6-0 Attendance: 49,000

DON'T TALK to David Humphreys about the luck of the Irish. Seven days ago the Ulster stand-off led the Northern Ireland province to victory in the European Cup and it was on the back of that extraordinary campaign that he was recalled to the national team.

Yesterday on the same Lansdowne Road stage, triumph turned to disaster when Ireland, who had outplayed France for most of the match, fell to a penalty a minute from time.

Humphreys had kicked Ireland into a 9-0 lead until the match turned midway through the second half when France scored the only try of the game. With the deficit cut to two points it was the signal for intense French pressure and when Thomas Castaignede landed a penalty in the 79th minute to put his side ahead for the first time in the afternoon it seemed to merely confirm Ireland's familiar hard luck story.

However, the agony was prolonged two minutes into injury time Ireland won a penalty near the French 22 and slightly to the left of the posts. Humphreys struck it well enough but the wind, which had been blowing in Irish faces throughout the second half carried the ball a couple of yards to the right of the target. If Humphreys was disconsolate, not to say devastated, he was in good company. The whole of Ireland probably let out a collective groan. This morning will be the time for a couple of million Hail Marys.

Ireland's long-suffering supporters had, of course, been here before but this defeat was particularly hard to stomach not only because of the sickening timing of the winning score but because a momentous forward display had all but smothered the champions.

Instead the damning statistics continue to pile up and mock Ireland. This was their 14th successive defeat to France, a Five Nations record, and they still have not won their opening game in the championship since 1988. This time the impression was that the sequence would be broken; this time the French dominance would be undermined, just as the French clubs had been by Ulster in the European Cup, by a formidable Irish pack. Dublin, to be sure was ready for the second successive Saturday, to celebrate a famous victory.

One of the reasons why it did not happen is that the coach, Warren Gatland, gambled not so much on replacing the more prosaic Eric Elwood with Humphreys but not selecting a specialist goalkicker. Instead of playing for Ireland A on Friday, Niall Woods perhaps should have been at Lansdowne Road yesterday. Although Humphreys kicked three penalties he missed four others including the heartbreaker at the end.

A 6-0 lead at half-time was the very least Ireland deserved. Humphreys' first touch was excellent - a 50-yard clearance after a promising French attack had broken down with a knock on from Fabien Pelous. Humphreys was in his exasperating mode.

Almost throughout he was at the centre of everything. Cruelly, though, he failed with two longish penalty attempts in the sixth and ninth minutes but when he hoisted a high ball to test Emile N'tamack, the French full- back spilled the ball. Humphreys should have done better with a clever flip pass from Conor McGuinness and then gave Rob Henderson a hospital pass, complete with emergency trolley. However, another Humphreys Garryowen had the French defence at panic stations and when they conceded a penalty for offside, Humphreys belatedly put Ireland ahead in the 25th minute.

A minute later the stand-off broke cleverly to initiate an attack down the left flank which was only denied close to the French line. It was the signal for Ireland to employ their famous 14-man lineout and when Dion O'Cuinneagain peeled round on the short side, only last-ditch tackling prevented the flanker from scoring.

France were under pressure in the front row and found the Irish back row of O'Cuinneagain, Eric Miller and Victor Costello more than a volatile handful.

Henderson, who had come on for the injured Jonathan Bell, made the most of his opportunities and it was from his break that the rampant Irish once again forced France to concede a penalty for offside in the 46th minute. Humphreys made no mistake to increase their lead to 9-0 and at that stage the champions were looking decidedly groggy. Castaignede, who appeared to be feeling the effects of a crushing tackle by Costello, kicked the ball dead from a penalty then Philippe Benetton blatantly punched Keith Wood. In mitigation the French flanker had been driven 10 yards back by the Irish hooker while not in possession. Inexcusably, the referee showed a yellow card not to Benetton but to the hapless Philippe Bernat- Salles.

If games can turn on one small event it happened here when Humphreys put in a little grubber kick inside the French half. But French defence was turned instantly to attack when the ball was blocked by their No 8 Thomas Lievremont. He hacked on and although the danger was initially cleared, the French, for the first time in a long time, had Ireland pinned on the ropes. They won a penalty close the line, kicked for touch and after winning the subsequent line-out drove impressively and irresistibly toward the Irish posts where Richard Dourthe was credited with the touchdown. Castaignede's conversion made it 9-7. Although Castaignede was just wide with a long-range penalty he made no mistake with another from 35 yards which proved to be the winning kick.

Ireland: C O'Shea (London Irish); J Bishop (London Irish), K Maggs (Bath), J Bell (Dungannon), G Dempsey (Terenure College); D Humphreys (Dungannon), C McGuinness (St Mary's College); P Clohessy (Young Munster), K Wood (Harlequins), P Wallace (Saracens), P Johns (Saracens, capt), J Davidson (Castres), E Miller (Terenure College), V Costello (St Mary's College), D O'Cuinneagain (Sale). Replacements: R Henderson (Wasps) for Bell (15), T Brennan (St Mary's College ) for Costello (51), J Fitzpatrick (Dungannon) for Clohessy (61).

France: E N'tamack (Toulouse); P Bernat-Salles (Biarritz), R Dourthe (Stade Francais), F Comba (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 (40), T Cleda (Pau) for Pelous (68), D Aucagne (Pau) for Lombard (79).

Referee: P Marshall (Australia).