For weeks ago they said they didn't give a fig for the Grand Slam, but yesterday the fig leaf was discarded as France were revealed in all their pomp and glory. Their third Grand Slam in six years and the first in the brief history of the Six Nations' Championship confirmed the impression that they are the best side in Europe and, given time, maybe further afield.
Finishing a dismal and distant fifth in the championship last season, France have improved tenfold. Under the inspired captaincy of old hand Fabien Galthié, wisely restored to his rightful place by the coach, Bernard Laporte, France have beaten the best from the southern and northern hemispheres.
The squad is possibly too young to be described at this stage in their development as vintage and they have not quite yet reached the Arc de Triomphe. That, however, could come in the World Cup in Australia in 18 months' time. Yet there was no danger of France doing a Devon Loch and they cleared the final hurdle with something to spare, beating Ireland by two goals, three tries and five penalties to a try. It was a fitting finale to a campaign that for France held two key matches, the narrow victory over Wales in Cardiff and the impressive denial of the English here.
For England the Triple Crown, but the cigar, the champagne and the silverware went to France with the completion of their seventh Grand Slam. They duly recorded their eighth win in a row yesterday and it would have made uncomfortable viewing for England, who today have nothing to confirm against Italy in Rome except the runners-up spot.
After their systematic five-try demolition of Ireland, the French squad were acclaimed by the 75,000 crowd who basked not only in the sunshine at Stade de France but in the irresistible performance of the team of all talents.
From the front row of Pieter de Villiers, Raphael Ibanez and Jean-Jacques Crenca, a formidable unit indeed and possibly the best in the world, to the accompished full-back Nicolas Brusque, the French have the means and firepower to win – and in a variety of styles.
For the most part Ireland were outclassed, forced into a damage limitation exercise, and their scrum was pressured to breaking point. They did, of course, have Captain Marvel, Keith Wood, who typically scored their only try; otherwise they had little to offer but a courageous defence. France for their part made light of a swirling wind. If they possessed any nerves against a side they had not beaten for three years, they were soon dispelled.
In only the second minute the French executed a trademark take from a lineout followed by a huge drive, and Gerald Merceron's little chip threw the Irish defence into disarray. They switched play to the right, where Wood managed to stop Olivier Magne in his tracks, but when the attack moved to the left, Ireland had run out of defenders and the flanker Serge Betsen, who seems to spend more time on the left wing than Robespierre, found himself in splendid isolation. Betsen did not have to surge to make the line.
Ireland's response was heartening, if only briefly. Rob Henderson forced a scrum five with a clever grub kick in the shadow of the French posts and then Ireland punched their weight, first through Peter Clohessy and then Wood, whose strength and determination took him through Magne and Merceron and to the line. Merceron, with a beautiful kick, landed a penalty before a sharp break from David Humphreys was ruined when his pass was intercepted by David Bory. After 20 minutes, four Irishmen were on their knees, either needing treatment or oxygen.
Merceron struck an upright with a goalkick but was successful with another attempt in the 25th minute: 13-5 ahead. Five minutes later, any notion that this would be a close encounter evaporated when Tony Marsh sliced through the Irish midfield and the move was sustained by De Villiers and Crenca. Even the props are adept at handling and running. They in turn found Merceron and his final pass enabled Brusque to storm over in the left- hand corner.
After 35 minutes there was an equally spectacular try when, from a ruck, Galthié managed to hold off Peter Stringer before feeding Aurélien Rougerie and the left-wing easily beat Denis Hickie before embarking on a 50-yard run to the posts. Merceron added a penalty to the conversion to emphasise Ireland's inadequacy on the stroke of half-time. Awarded two penalties, Humphreys kicked both of them to touch before knocking on a pass close to the French posts.
Leading 28-5 at half-time, France quickly set about consolidating their advantage. Brian O'Driscoll, who scored three tries here in a famous victory two years ago, had to concentrate for the most part on defence yesterday, and his tackle denied Betsen another try in the left-hand corner. However, when an Irish scrum was destroyed, Merceron kicked the penalty. Try number four soon followed when Crenca made massive inroads in the Irish defence with an unstoppable assault, Ibanez carried on the good work and that man Betsen, once again lurking on the left wing, helped himself to his second try of the day.
The siege was lifted by a long kick out of defence and Hickie was unfortunate to see the ball roll into touch a few yards from the French line. It was Ireland's first visit into the French half in 22 minutes. Although Ireland enjoyed their best phase they were soon back under the cosh. The remarkable Crenca provided Damien Traille with a try-scoring opportunity but the young centre was knocked into touch a few feet short by a marvellous Stringer tackle. Francois Gelez, who had come on for Merceron, landed France's fifth penalty for the Tricolores. For the fifth try Fabien Pelous made the initial breach, Gelez added the pace and then Remy Martin and Marsh combined to send Brusque in for his second try.
It was an appropriate encore for France, who gave all their replacements their place in the sun before celebrating a memorable achievement with a lap of honour. In addition to collecting the championship trophy, the players each received a silver medal. Gold might have been better.
Ireland, who have had a gruelling season, now have the dubious pleasure of touring New Zealand in the summer, where they will play two Tests against the All Blacks. As for England, they complete their World Cup preparations next year by playing two matches against France, home and away.
France 44 Ireland 5
Tries: Betsen 2, Brusque 2 Try: Wood Rougerie Cons: Merceron 2 Pens: Merceron 4, Gelez
Half-time: 28-5 Attendance: 79,978
N Brusque (Biarritz); A Rougerie (Mont-ferrand), D Traille (Pau), T Marsh (Mont-ferrand), D Bory (Montferrand); G Merceron (Montferrand), F Galthié (Stade Français, capt); P De Villiers (Stade Français), R Ibanez (Castres), J J Crenca (Agen), F Pelous (Toulouse), O Brouzet (Northampton),S Betsen (Biarritz), I Harinordoquy (Pau),O Magne (Montferrand).
Replacements: J-B Poux (Narbonne) for Crenca, 65; F Gelez (Agen) for Merceron, 65; D Auradou (Stade Français) for Brouzet, 74; J Marlu (Montferrand) for Bory, 77; O Azam (Gloucester) for Ibanez, 77, R Martin (Stade Français) for Magne, 79; P Mignoni (Béziers) for Galthié, 79.
G Dempsey (Leinster); S Horgan (Leinster), B O'Driscoll (Leinster), R Henderson (Munster), D Hickie (Leinster); D Humphreys (Ulster), P Stringer (Munster); P Clohessy (Munster), K Wood (Harlequins, capt), J Hayes (Munster), G Longwell (Ulster), M O'Kelly (Leinster), S Easterby (Llanelli), A Foley (Munster), D Wallace (Munster).
Replacements: R O'Gara (Munster) for Humphreys, 61; P Wallace (Leinster) for Clohessy, 63; P O'Connell (Munster) for Longwell, 66; K Gleeson (Leinster) for D Wallace, 72.
Referee: P O'Brien (New Zealand).Reuse content