Million dollar Baby the new face of a threatening France

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The Independent Online

The rear axle has been clanking ominously all season, the nearside back tyre has had a slow puncture. But somehow Ireland's Grand Slam bandwagon has kept limping forwards. Until yesterday. Then the wheels fell off.

The bitter disappointment of a lost Grand Slam date in Wales next Saturday will haunt Eddie O'Sullivan's men. Only seven points adrift? No, the French were miles ahead, faster in thought and deed and superior in precision.

Two sublime moments finally undid Ireland's always shaky grasp on the Slam. You had to marvel at the dexterity of the French handling and their ability to make the ball do the work. French players learn such talents almost from birth. You cannot coach that touch and skill when a player is 20. Only Brian O'Driscoll could match the French in that respect, but without Gordon D'Arcy alongside him, Ireland's captain was operating at a disadvantage.

For Benoît Baby to come in for his first cap and play so audaciously was testimony to France's enduring ability to produce class. Not far behind him were Julien Laharrague and the wing Dominici. Suddenly, as if out of nothing, France have shown us the template for their World Cup bid on home soil in 30 months' time.

Where Ireland go from here is more problematic. They will do well to collect their spirits in time for the match in Cardiff. But, in truth, they have been living on borrowed time. Theirs has been a spluttering, inconsistent championship. You rarely win a Grand Slam with such uneven displays, and France exposed that reality yesterday.

Ireland had none of the go-forward momentum or spark of France behind the scrum, O'Driscoll excepted. Nor could they hold a candle to French speed and poise. Kevin Maggs is wholehearted but will never outpace an international back-line.

What happened yesterday would surely have come to pass in Cardiff against the quicksilver Welsh threequarters even if the Grand Slam dream had remained alive. Ireland could not mask not merely their lack of pace but the deficiencies in other parts of their game. The French loosehead Sylvain Marconnet destroyed John Hayes in the set scrums - and probably his Lions hopes too.

France were quicker to the loose ball while Ireland simply could not expand their game, hard as they tried as individuals. They had little of the cohesion of the French pack, and ultimately that told.

Had France taken more of their chances, the game would have been over long before the anti-climactic finish. Yann Delaigue wasted a palpable five-on-two overlap early in the second half when another French try would have guillotined Ireland's hopes. As it was, Ireland somehow hung on, living on sheer willpower and then O'Driscoll's brilliant individual try, which was the equal of the best of the French. But when Dominici skated into the right-hand corner with four minutes left, from the magnificent Marconnet's blindside thrust, the dream died.

Ireland have not struggled in just this one match this season. Remember Argen-tina? So their coach, Eddie O'Sullivan, faces hard choices. The best teams either have intimidating forward power, like England at the World Cup, or dazzling genius right down their back-line. Ireland have neither at the moment, but addressing their front-row difficulties has to be O'Sullivan's first task.

But focus not solely on Ireland's deficiencies. At times the fluency of the French back-line was exquisite, and the angles they cut were done with the delicacy of a master tailor. It was fabulous to see.