The river of self-belief that has flowed through Irish rugby over the past 18 months ran dry in the frozen wastes of Paris last night. France crushed Irish aspirations of another Grand Slam. This was a demonstration of forward play. What was more, as the bands played the Marseillaise to celebrate a famous victory the French produced some marvellously inventive back play. Ireland fell apart.
History, Brian O'Driscoll's men knew at the start, was firmly against them. Ireland have only two wins in the French capital since 1952. From the moment the visitors' full-back, Rob Kearney, knocked on the kick-off, France seized the stage.
Ireland suffered a first defeat in 13 matches dating back to the autumn of 2008 because their forwards could not match the explosive power of the French, especially at close quarters. The French pack gave a towering performance except in the line-out, where they lost four of their own throws in the first 25 minutes.
The sheer determination with which they marshalled their defences when Ireland won the ball was compelling. Early on, Ireland got close and battered on a heavy French oak door. It did not budge. With tremendous discipline, structure and will, the French threw back the raiders. Twice, Ireland should have scored. A cruel bounce denied Gordon D'Arcy after a brilliant 16th-minute break, Clément Poitrenaud recovering to save the score. Then, right on half-time, Paul O'Connell knocked on with the line beckoning.
By then the die was cast, not least because of the Ireland loosehead prop, Cian Healy, pulling back Morgan Parra, the France scrum-half, in the 17th minute and incurring a yellow card. France had an attacking position, and although they could not score from a series of scrums, the hooker William Servat found the space to crash over from close range. Parra, who had kicked an early penalty, converted for a 10-0 lead.
Ronan O'Gara kicked a 28th-minute penalty for Ireland but Mathieu Bastareaud then hammered through a defensive gap and made it deep into the Irish 22. When the ruck ball went left the other centre, Yannick Jauzion, exploited another hole to drive over. Parra's conversion made it 17-3 to France at the break.
Even with Healy back, the Irish scrum was forced to scramble. Furthermore, France's magnificent back row dominated in broken play. Thierry Dusautoir led inspiration-ally. Imanol Harinordoquy again looked an immense athlete and the openside, Fulgence Ouedraogo, roamed to lethal effect. France were overwhelmingly superior in the mauls, which they moved forward with pace and power. There was little the outplayed Irish could do.
Ireland lost Kearney before half-time but the real damage had been done up front. What ball they got in the second half was received under pressure. All the dash and inspiration came from the French.
Their fly-half, François Trinh-Duc, looked a growing threat and he made one spectacular dash to the Irish line before being halted just short. France's pressure had to pay off, though, and Poitrenaud scored in the left corner after Bastareaud had held off O'Driscoll before slipping the scoring pass. Parra converted again and then dropped a goal from 42 metres. David Wallace was worked over for an Irish try by Stephen Ferris and O'Driscoll, but France reached 30 with a 46m penalty from Parra before Fréddie Michalak dropped a late goal.
O'Driscoll did not accept that the defeat meant the end of a era. "I certainly don't think we feel we have come to the end of a cycle," he said. "Obviously there is huge disappointment and we haven't felt that for over a year. But a result like that is quite grounding at times. You get a little reality check from those games. It was quite a complete all-round performance from the French. It was an impressive display and not just in the forwards."
France's coach, Marc Lièvremont, said: "We can now focus only on Wales, our next match. But I was pleased with the structure and discipline we showed and I thought Morgan Parra was exceptional."
France C Poitrenaud; V Clerc (D Marty, 48), M Bastareaud, Y Jauzion (F Michalak, 67), A Palisson (J Malzieu, 24); F Trinh-Duc, M Parra; T Domingo, W Servat (D Szarzewski, 49), N Mas (S Marconnet, 49-72), P Pape (J Pierre, 74), L Nallet, T Dusautoir (capt), I Harinordoquy (J Bonnaire, 62), F Ouedraogo.
Ireland: R Kearney (P Wallace, 35); T Bowe, B O'Driscoll (capt; P Wallace, 17-19), G D'Arcy, K Earls; R O'Gara (J Sexton, 69), T O'Leary (E Reddan, 69); C Healy, J Flannery (R Best, 61), J Hayes (T Court, 49), L Cullen (D Ryan, 61), P O'Connell, S Ferris (Court, 19-27), J Heaslip, D Wallace.
Referee: W Barnes (England).