Rugby Union: Irish strike major blow for Celts

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The Independent Online
THE TWO big questions after yesterday's Five Nations action were: 1. What ever happened to the luck of the Irish? 2. What ever happened to the pluck of the Welsh? Ireland should have won their dog-fight of a match against France with something to spare but all the mighty work by their forwards came to nothing as the French sneaked the narrowest of victories. Ireland's only consolation was that they struck a big blow for the Celts against those who condemn the Five Nations as being dominated by the big two.

Then Scotland and Wales produced a fast and thrilling contest that contained much promise of excitement to come. At least, it did for Scotland. The Welsh will be asking what caused their team to fall apart in a finale which saw the Scots swarm all over them. Wales seemed to be in control until Scotland scored their interception try then they caved in, surrendering turnover after turnover and becoming a shambles in the line-out.

For the second season running, the Irish came agonisingly close to beating the French. In the 16 years since they last beat them they surely haven't been as unlucky as they were yesterday. It was nowhere near a classic encounter. For long periods the only colourful part of the game came from the adverts on the pitch which melted in the rain and soon covered the players from head to toe. If it had been a snooker game, Keith Wood's head would have been worth five points.

Unfortunately, it turned out not to be a great dye for the Irish. They should have won it in the first half when their pack rallied around the inspiration of Wood to pile pressure on the French, who looked very rattled. Had David Humphreys been able to kick the points that were offered up to him they would have reached the interval with a 15-0 advantage and that would have been the end of French hopes.

It was always a risk to have Humphreys as the only goal-kicker in the team. There is no doubt that he is a good kicker but he hasn't been doing that duty for Ulster this season. It was Simon Mason who took on the responsibility of kicking Ulster's goals and it was loading a lot on to Humphreys to ask him to take the fierce pressures of stepping straight up to international goal-kicking. I felt so sorry for him missing the last-minute kick that could have brought Ireland the win.

Had Ireland chosen the London Irish winger Niall Woods, he could have relieved Humphreys of the job after his first-half failings. Apart from that, I thought Humphreys played the game well tactically but he might have overdone the up-and-unders in the conditions. It was a French charge- down of one of his attempted kicks in the second half that led to a dramatic change in the flow of the game. It gave France good field position from which they scored their try.

It was terrible luck but that's what happens when you fail to take advantage of your chances. Although they were much relieved by the victory, France have no reason to feel happy about their performance. They didn't look half the side they were last year and their coach needs to crack down on the indiscipline that yielded so many penalties. At times they looked so naive I swear they don't know the rules.

They do have a habit of slow starts in the Five Nations but they rarely look as ragged as they did yesterday. Even allowing for the excellent display by the Irish forwards and the great Irish defensive work, this was a pale imitation of a French team.

Where Wales go from here, I am not sure. There were a few plus points yesterday. The performance of Neil Jenkins was very encouraging as was that of Chris Wyatt and after they recovered from losing a try in record time Wales looked in good shape at half-time but they ended in disarray with the Scots rightly jubilant with they way they tore them apart.