Not even the genius of Brian O'Driscoll could save Ireland from the shocking anti-climax of seeing yet another Grand Slam dream turn to ashes. The Irish lived dangerously here against England and got away with it. Yesterday it was a case of it's all over now Baby Blue.
By the time Benoît Baby, not one of Bernard Laporte's original selections, raced about 50 yards, by-passing what should have been the heart of the Irish defence seven minutes before half-time, the game was up.
Playing with a strong wind at their backs in the first half, Ireland were almost unbelievably sterile. They trooped off at the interval trailing by nine points and could not even rely on an infuriatingly inconsistent, casual France on blowing such an advantage, as they had against Wales in Paris.
Mind you, France, after scoring two cracking tries in the first half, came close to losing it when O'Driscoll scored a classic, trademark try nine minutes from the end to make it 19-21, and the old stadium was rocking and creaking.
Unfortunately, so was the ageing Irish pack which did not have another trick up its sleeve. Had Ireland stolen it, it would have been one of the crimes of the century.
As it was, a controversial try by Christophe Dominici three minutes from time silenced the uprising and nobody in green had any inclination to argue with the result which went France's way by a goal, two tries, two penalties and a drop goal to a goal and four penalties.
"The better team won," Eddie O'Sullivan, the Ireland coach, said. "France deserved it. People wondered whether they would turn up and they certainly did. That is one hell of a French team. If they're rebuilding we're all in trouble. I thought at one stage we had them where we wanted them but we can't beat ourselves up about this defeat, as disappointing as it was."
It was a view echoed by his captain, O'Driscoll. The brilliant centre, whose memorable try here did for England, produced another moment of sheer magic to drag Ireland back into a game they appeared to have relinquished.
It coincided with a moment of French farce. They were leading 21-12 when, in the 71st minute, Laporte, as eccentric as he looks, decided to take off Fabien Pelous. Pelous, the captain who had marked his 100th Test appearance for his country with an excellent performance, went off to considerable applause which had barely died when O'Driscoll struck. Going outside Frédéric Michalak's attempted tackle, he burst into the French 22 and swerved inside Cédric Heymans to touch down under the posts. It was one of the very few occasions that Ireland had got a sniff of the French line.
"We had a big mountain to climb and we very nearly got to the top," O'Sullivan said. Critically, Ireland failed to reach base camp in the first half after France won the toss and elected to play into the wind. What resulted was, according to Laporte, a perfect 40 minutes for Les Bleus. France got on top of the Irish line-out and although Ronan O'Gara kicked Ireland into the lead with a seventh-minute penalty, his opposite number, Yann Delaigue, levelled with a drop goal three minutes later after his forwards had applied a punishing rolling maul.
It was Delaigue's most impressive contribution as he squandered possession with ill-judged kicks and then gave O'Gara another penalty after a high tackle on O'Driscoll. An indication of the strength of the wind was highlighted when O'Gara kicked dead from 75 yards and, from the resultant scrum deep in Irish territory, Dimitri Yachvili made it 6-6 with a penalty. Although O'Gara regained the lead with his third penalty France capitalised on their superior pace with a beautifully made try in the 28th minute when Julien Laharrague and Heymans combined on the right flank to send Dominici over for the first of his two tries. Heymans was missed by O'Gara and Dominici by Denis Hickie.
When Ireland lost a line-out on their own throw five minutes later, the talented Yannick Nyanga stealing the ball on half-way, Baby accelerated between the pedestrian Kevin Maggs and Girvan Dempsey to sprint over for a marvellous try without a hand being laid upon him.
Adrift 18-9 at the break, Ireland needed a near miracle. O'Gara landed his fourth penalty six minutes into the second half when Baby launched himself head first at O'Driscoll at a ruck, an act of recklessness that earned the centre no more than a ticking-off and caused O'Driscoll a rare loss of temper.
With the wind, France were almost as poor in the second half as Ireland had been in the first. Yachvili restored their lead to nine points with a 50-yard penalty in the 60th minute, which had been conceded by O'Driscoll before Ireland, with Malcolm O'Kelly to the fore, finally launched a sustained offensive which tested the French defence. O'Gara took the wrong option with a grubber kick over the French line after a multi-phased attack before O'Driscoll's wonderful solo effort gave his side hope. It didn't last long and Ireland were never in a position to threaten again.
Instead, in the 77th minute, Serge Betsen tackled Peter Stringer when the scrum-half was not in possession and from the maul Sylvain Marconnet somehow emerged with the ball on the blind side and slipped a try-scoring pass to Dominici.
"We tried hard but alas it was not enough," O'Driscoll said. He emphasised that tonight Ireland would regroup in their team hotel and attempt to focus on their final match in the Six Nations' Championship, against Wales at the Millennium Stadium next Saturday. "We're hugely disappointed that a Grand Slam has gone away but we've still got the Triple Crown to play for. We will have to raise our performance considerably to deny Wales a possible Slam." O'Driscoll was assuming that Wales would beat Scotland at Murrayfield this afternoon.Reuse content