Spirit of Munster inspires Ireland

Ireland 30 France 21
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The Independent Online

Britain still had a King, the Korean War was about to break out and Adolf Hitler was only dead 36 months when Ireland's rugby men last won a Grand Slam.

As is the Irish way, few post-match assessments of this victory achieved in freezing conditions here on Saturday night excluded the Nirvana-like phrase "Grand Slam", applied to the 2009 Six Nations Championship. Granted, this was Ireland's first win over the French in eight matches and they did it with much flair. Yet it is surely wildly premature to start discussing a Grand Slam. At least the Irish players were not signing up to such day-dreams in the afterglow of this highly entertaining game.

Leicester full-back Geordan Murphy, a substitute in the final minutes, laughed at such notions. "We're not getting too carried away by that performance. We still have a long way to go. Had the French not made some silly errors it could have been a very different story. Our aim is to improve for Rome next weekend. That's as far as we're looking."

This welcome affirmation that sanity at least exists within the Irish camp was needed. For much of Saturday's sizzling game, definitely one of the best in the last decade, Ireland were hanging on, surviving chiefly because France butchered some glorious try-scoring chances.

The facts tell their own tale. Ireland had to make 95 tackles (against 71 by France), they benefited hugely from the referee's constant penalising of the French (10 penalties to two) and France spent 29 minutes of the first half in Irish territory.

For Ireland to go in at half-time with a 13-10 lead was miraculous, such had been the exquisite and deadly running from deep by the French backs and their ability to make significant territorial gains on the counter-attack.

Ireland's tactical kicking was often poor, offering the quicksilver French back three tasty morsels on which to gorge. Only the sustained excellence of Ireland's scrambling defence and France's indiscipline prevented further scores.

French coach Marc Lièvremont saw his side play some consummate rugby, yet lose, surely the ultimate frustration. But he condemned them, saying, "We are very disappointed and frustrated; we had high hopes for this match. There was a lack of discipline, especially early on. We allowed the Irish to score and although we got a try, we were always trying to play catch-up. We made too many bad choices."

Given the quality of some of the French play, that might seem harsh. But it was Ireland, clearly infused with the spirit of Munster that has served that province so nobly in the Heineken Cup, who prevailed. Paul O'Connell, Jamie Heaslip, who scored a magnificent try, Stephen Ferris and Donncha O'Callaghan were supreme up front, particularly O'Connell.

Behind them, although Tomas O'Leary and Ronan O'Gara made too many errors, the vibrancy of the Irish threequarter play, particularly a rejuvenated Brian O'Driscoll and the towering Rob Kearney at full-back, was good enough to create three tries, finished by Heaslip, O'Driscoll and substitute Gordon D'Arcy.

It was clear that Declan Kidney's Irish teams will be given greater scope for individuality and decision-making, a welcome change from the strictures of the Eddie O'Sullivan era. But Ireland can improve further. Their tactical strategy was flawed at times and they often lacked accuracy. Italy are unlikely to expose them in Rome on Sunday and O'Callaghan is anticipating the Irish quest will gather momentum.

"Now it's all about backing up that performance," said the Munster lock. "It's no good putting in a performance like this if we play badly in Italy next weekend. This win puts us in a great position in the Six Nations, even if we have played just one game. Rugby is all about confidence. This will give us more confidence and guys in the team will maybe try a few more things they wouldn't have done if we'd lost. Winning's a habit and hopefully we can keep it going throughout the championship."

Scotland in Edinburgh and Wales in Cardiff will surely prove far sterner tests. Thankfully, for the cause of common sense and reality, there was little triumphalism from Kidney.

"Any day that an Irish team gets the better of France is a great day and wants to be enjoyed by everybody," he said.

However the fired-up O'Callaghan was in no mood for talking down Saturday's win. "Sometimes I don't like playing us down because we don't fear these teams any more," he added. "I don't want to sound cocky but there hasn't been a fear factor against France for two years now.

"They've beaten us in the last couple of fixtures but there's been a bounce of the ball between us. Sometimes you can pay too much lip service to them and granted they have more players to select from, but we shouldn't play down to that. Look at the provinces – Leinster and Munster have both won games in France now. We know what it takes".

Ireland: R Kearney (G Murphy, 75); T Bowe, B O'Driscoll (capt), P Wallace (G D'Arcy 28-35 (blood) and 62), L Fitzgerald; R O'Gara, T O'Leary; M Horan, J Flannery (R Best, 48), J Hayes, D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell, S Ferris (D Leamy, 72), D Wallace, J Heaslip.

France: C Poitrenaud (C Heymans, 73); J Malzieu, Y Jauzion, F Fritz (B Baby, 79), M Medard; L Beauxis, S Tillous-Borde (M Parra, 68); L Faure, D Szarzewski (B Kayser, 58), B Lecouls (N Mas, 40), L Nallet (capt), S Chabal (R Millo-Chluski, 62), T Dusautoir, F Ouedraogo, I Harinordoquy (L Picamoles, 71).

Referee: N. Owens (Wales).