Michalak marshals a French procession

France 35 Ireland 17
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The Independent Online

The French stopped short of a full-blown lap of honour, but their re-emergence after the final whistle to give a record crowd at this ground a celebratory wave reflected a job well done. Ireland's misgivings at having to visit Paris without their injured captain, Brian O'Driscoll, and in the immediate wake of Keith Wood's retirement, were made real by a try count of four to two in favour of Les Bleus.

The Irish lacked nothing in guts but France had the gamebreakers. Damien Traille was at his creative best in midfield, forming a heavyweight partnership with Yannick Jauzion that would stand scrutiny in Paris's meaner side streets, never mind on a rugby field.

Nicolas Brusque demonstrated why he is keeping Clément Poitrenuad at bay at full-back and the pack, featuring two debutants, made a solid start to their bid for a fourth Grand Slam in eight years.

"France, to their credit, got four chances and stitched us up every time," said Ireland's coach, Eddie O'Sullivan. His side could have been forgiven their largely conservative approach, without O'Driscoll and his fellow crocks in the backline, Geordan Murphy and Denis Hickie. In fact, they also chose a line-out over a penalty goal in the opening 10 minutes and occasionally looked good when they attempted to outflank France's blitz defence in the three-quarters. A late cross-kick by Anthony Horgan might have brought a third try. But it was far from a moral victory; more a marginally morale-boosting defeat.

Initially, it seemed that pratfalls were the best way to points. In the fifth minute Peter Stringer almost had a pass intercepted by Olivier Magne, but the position turned in Ireland's favour when Jean-Baptiste Elissalde poked his nose too far into Stringer's business at the resulting scrum, and Ronan O'Gara knocked over the opening points.

Frédéric Michalak put a penalty wide for France and Paul O'Connell, taking up Wood's captaincy cudgel while O'Driscoll recovers from a torn hamstring, acted boldly to set up a catch-and-drive rather than go for goal following a penalty against one of the new men, Pascal Papé, for not releasing. The French were struggling in retreat, but the maul fell short and the attack slowed to a halt with Malcolm O'Kelly hacking on clumsily.

"The rolling maul is a great weapon close to the line," said O'Sullivan, "but not a lot of use 50 metres out." France had more to their armoury and, as O'Sullivan indicated, when the home side took aim they tended to hit the target. Ireland's line-out was pretty reliable - 22 won, two lost on their throw - but the French scented blood at a scrum in the 20th minute and drove hard to turn over the put-in. Ireland fell offside and Michalak made it 3-3. The Irish responded with a flashing right-to-left move, but Howe was tackled into touch.

France's riposte saw Traille slip away from O'Gara's tackle and it was all Gordon D'Arcy could do to hold on to the inside-centre's coat-tails. Traille passed out of the tackle to Michalak, who fed Brusque, who put Vincent Clerc over at the corner.

Michalak fluffed the conversion but an Irish hand in the ruck after 29 minutes gave him another chance on his favoured left side. With the crowd setting up a hand clap of encouragement, he made it 11-3 at the interval.

The answer to how it became 28-10 by the end of the third quarter is not easily arrived at. The Irish got to within a point when Elissalde mislaid the ball and O'Gara chipped ahead, won the chase and sent Foley over with a snapped inside pass. Yet though O'Gara converted handsomely there was a distinct sense that France were comfortable. With two tries in four minutes, Les Bleus hit a devastating purple patch.

Again there was a sloppy bit of work at the source of it. O'Gara's aimless kick prompted Brusque to counter from halfway, weaving through Irish defenders before an offload to Christophe Dominici, who linked with Serge Betsen to send Papé over. The Bourgoin beanpole dotted down beneath the bar, heralding a trip to the other kind of bar later for the usual forfeit.

Michalak converted, and did so again when Traille reprised his earlier set-up play to present Jauzion with an easy run-in. Another penalty from Michalak increased the advantage, yet D'Arcy, O'Driscoll's stocky lookalike stand-in, was in no mood to capitulate. Though another promising Irish maul was held up, D'Arcy fixed the French neatly to create a 67th minute try for Tyrone Howe. O'Gara converted, but France freshened up their pack with four replacements, brought Brian Liebenberg on for Jauzion - one battering ram for another - and resumed the assault.

After 71 minutes a blue wedge went straight up the middle, Liebenberg took three green jerseys with him and good clearing-out allowed Elissalde through clear water for the fourth try. Though not a coronation of Fabien Galthié's successor, it capped a princely contribution by Elissalde and, up in the stands, his father Jean-Pierre - a former France scrum-half - grinned his approval.

Michalak hoisted his total to 15 with the conversion. If this was a more comfortable day at the office compared with his poor performance in the World Cup semi-final defeat by England, then the same was true for France as a whole. Italy are here next: wish them bon chance.

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