Rarely has a defeat been greeted with such relief, even though this seventh successive reverse against France means the Irish will have to wait yet another year for a Grand Slam. The sentiments expressed by Ronan O'Gara appeared heartfelt when the fly-half said: "It's been a long time since a satisfying performance like that with Ireland."
Just how long, you may ask? Well, the World Cup was a satisfaction-free zone; so too the three warm-up matches for that tournament, and although there were bits and bobs of encouragement on last summer's tour to Argentina, it is just under a year since England were caned at Croke Park and Italy thrashed in Rome and all was well in God's green-tinted heaven.
On Saturday the Irish fought to the brink of victory after trailing 26-6 to a France lead built upon Vincent Clerc's hat-trick of tries: the sixth by a Frenchman in Championship history. Though Ireland's head coach, Eddie O'Sullivan, continues to wear a worryingly baggy-eyed look, his team can now contemplate the forthcoming home matches against Scotland and Wales with reasonable optimism. The overdue changes in personnel worked out fine, though they badly need to tighten up the line-out.
O'Gara, by his own admission, has grown accustomed to positive vibes in the red jersey of Munster, and he revealed how he fired all of Ireland with a stirring speech on the eve of the match. "I just spoke about trying to get credibility back in the Irish team," he said. "All I asked for is to be honest and I thought we were honest today." There was a suggestion that O'Gara had asked Ulster's Andrew Trimble to "do it" for the North, and so on through the side. Brian O'Driscoll, Ireland's captain, who despite his critics continues to do things with a rugby ball most can only dream of, said the team "owed" O'Sullivan a good match. "We took a step in the right direction here but this team needs a [big] win," said O'Gara, probably with the remaining Triple Crown fixtures this season in mind.
A 58th minute penalty try at a scrum and a forwards' effort from a line-out drive three minutes later finished by David Wallace – who combined well in the back row with Denis Leamy and the effervescent tyro Jamie Heaslip – reined France in, and O'Gara kicked a superb third penalty after 74 minutes. Samuel Beckett would pop along to this fixture when he lived in Paris in the 1930s. Waiting for Godot? Waiting for an Irish win in Paris, more like. There have been just four since the 1920s and if Ireland had trusted their forwards at the last knockings, there might have been another.
Whereas O'Sullivan is negotiating his ninth Championship as an Ireland coach – in 2000 and 2001 he was assistant to Warren Gatland – France's Marc Lièvremont is in virgin territory. The former Test No8 continued to make changes from the bench even when Ireland were on the comeback trail. Dave Ellis, France's English defence coach who has kept his place despite the retirement of former head honcho Bernard Laporte, explained: "We need to see people under pressure, to see how the likes of [No8] Louis Picamoles and [fly-half] François Trinh-Duc get on without the ball."
As for the flying Clerc, who played and therefore followed up his two tries in the previous week's win in Scotland only by dint of an injury to Julien Malzieu, he said he had no idea if he would be picked against England in Paris on Saturday week. O'Gara was not exactly thinking of helping the English, but he observed: "Cédric Heymans [who scored France's fourth try after 48 minutes] and Clerc are phenomenal players, you have to admire quality like that, the same as Cristiano Ronaldo. The way they play in the back three, there's very few kicking options and you have to move the ball from inside your own half."
O'Gara also said "It's ourselves that are holding ourselves back." Hmm. And he complimented O'Driscoll of Leinster, ever so slightly back-handedly. "Brian likes the outside break but he is a bull of a man, he demanded the ball in his hands and it was great to see him attacking the ball today." Reading between the lines, perhaps this was a case of a divided Ireland, still in the hunt for a first Championship since 1985, reunited.
France: C Heymans (Toulouse); A Rougerie (Clermont Auvergne), D Marty (Perpignan), D Traille (Biarritz), V Clerc (Toulouse); D Skrela (Stade Français), J-B Elissalde (Toulouse); L Faure (Sale), D Szarzewski (Stade Français), N Mas (Perpignan), L Nallet (Castres, capt), A Méla (Albi), T Dusautoir (Toulouse) , F Ouedraogo (Montpellier), J Bonnaire (Clermont Auvergne). Replacements: W Servat (Toulouse) for Szarzewski, 48; J Brugnaut (Dax) for Faure, 48; L Jacquet (Clermont Auvergne) for Méla, 16-21, 50; L Picamoles (Montpellier) for Ouedraogo, 61; M Parra (Bourgoin) for Elissalde, 64; F Trinh-Duc (Montpellier) for Skrela, 75.
Ireland: G Dempsey (Leinster); G Murphy (Leicester), B O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt), A Trimble (Ulster), R Kearney (Leinster); R O'Gara (Munster), E Reddan (Wasps); M Horan (Munster), B Jackman (Leinster), J Hayes (Munster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), M O'Kelly (Leinster), D Wallace (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster), D Leamy (Munster). Replacements: R Best (Ulster) for Jackman, 60; T Buckley (Munster) for Hayes, 71; M O'Driscoll (Munster) for O'Kelly, 63.
Referee: N Owens (Wales).Reuse content