O'Connell a rock for O'Sullivan to build on

By Peter Bills
Sunday 15 February 2004 01:00

It comes to something when we have to discuss impotence on St Valentine's Day. But Ireland's men - well, their three-quarters to be precise - were guilty of the charge in the opening fixture of the 2004 Six Nations' Championship.

They had enough ball to push France much closer and bury the memory of Melbourne and the World Cup defeat. For the Irish forwards, led by the striking example of their new captain Paul O'Connell, battled the French pack mightily and never flagged in their task.

But how they missed the invention of the injured trio of backs, Brian O'Driscoll, Denis Hickie and Geordan Murphy. The alarming lack of quality in depth in Ireland's backline resources was made painfully clear by yesterday's pedestrian efforts, hard as Gordon D'Arcy kept trying to find space. But the fact was, France escaped a woefully poor first half by their standards to pick up their game and emerge clear winners long before the end. Their coach Bernard Laporte said: "We never panicked at half-time although it had been a poor performance. We lost far too many balls in the first 40 minutes and our problem was always keeping the ball in our hands.''

Laporte paid tribute to Ireland's chief attacking weapon, the rolling maul. "They were very good at that and gave us many difficulties. But I was very satisfied by the work of our defence in that area. Despite the pressure of the Irish we did not concede a score from that phase."

At the heart of the Irish pack was the flame-haired beacon, O'Connell, who will surely force his way into the Lions' Test side in New Zealand next year. His performance was of exceptional bravery and commitment. O'Connell will be the rock upon which coach Eddie O'Sullivan builds his 2007 World Cup campaign - though he may not be captain for very much longer - O'Sullivan said he hoped O'Driscoll would return to lead the side against the resurgent Welsh at Lansdowne Road a week today.

O'Sullivan was frustrated with the mistakes his team made at crucial moments. "You have to give credit to France for the way they took their tries. But the fact is that most of them came from Irish mistakes. Therefore, a try count of four to two was probably a fair reflection. It could have been 4-3. I was reasonably satisfied at half-time. I thought we started very well, but really should have scored a try for our early pressure. I was disappointed that it didn't happen."

Ireland have significant difficulties to solve. The good news is that they have an immediate chance to put things right, but the bad news is there is much to correct. Their limited game plan of kicking for the corners and trying to put France under pressure went out with the Ark. Frankly, it smacked more of a damage limitation exercise than any credible attacking threat. Once the ball went to the respective backlines, there was only one side playing any kind of attacking rugby and that was the French. The way they changed the point of the attack with swivel passes and clever interpassing was cunning, shrewd and quite deadly. They opened up the Irish defence twice in three minutes after half-time as easily as you'd open a tin of soup.

French outside-half Frédéric Michalak was quick, neat and inventive. Ronan O'Gara looked ponderous by contrast, with the significant exception of the 44th minute when his delightful chip and regather gave Anthony Foley a simple run-in. Ireland will need to show more than simply going back to basics.

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