Saturday, March 15, 2014

FRANCE-20 IRELAND-22

REIGNING ON OUR PARADE

REIGNING ON OUR PARADE

HoR pro logo greenWe went 6-0 down, then scored two quick tries including an Ulster winger leaving an opponent flailing in mid-air, but needed a missed penalty towards the end to help us to the Championship.

As went Cardiff in 2009, so went Paris in 2014, right?   Yeah, not quite. 

This contest didn’t really need any comparisons with history to make it memorable…not with that Grand Slam success, nor with any other Irish visit to the French capital.  It was an epic battle between two top rugby nations playing at full tilt which saw Ireland not only give our legendary 13 the perfect send-off but also thoroughly vindicate the decisions and hard-work put in by our dedicated coaching staff.

And judging by the reactions around the social media channels since the final whistle, it seems to be a mostly popular outcome to the 2014 Six Nations.  There are some begrudgers, and sadly some of them are Irish, but the rest of us shouldn’t let that spoil our celebrations, not least on St Patrick’s weekend.

When you watch a crucial match like this live as a fan, it’s impossible to appreciate what’s going on - you just react to each minute as it comes and prepare to react to the next one.  So it was safe to say my nerves were pretty much frazzled by the time this one was over, though I did manage to turn around and give a “YEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAHHHHHHH!” complete with fist-pumps to everyone sitting behind me!

It was only when I watched the action back that I could really appreciate everything that transpired, so let’s get to that action in detail.

First, the French kicked off and it was caught cleanly by Andrew Trimble.  Don’t worry - this writeup isn’t going to simply relay every individual incident, it’s just that I concur with the general opinion that “Trims” was the true man of the match and I thought it fitting that he had our first touch.

Someone who definitely didn’t have a good start was referee Steve Walsh - after we kicked the ball back to the French they came at us and Chris Henry was pinged in a kickable area for “not releasing” when he wasn’t even the tackler. 

Things never really got much better for our Steve, though once I was able to at least peer over my green goggles I saw he got big calls wrong both ways.  But as much as he’d like it all to be about him, I’m certainly not going to oblige.

Bastareaud’s first carry at midfield saw him break clean through Darce & Drico…that did not augur well neither for this match nor Leinster’s visit to Toulon in April.  But the reason our first-up tacklers tend to take the low-percentage option of hitting runners around the chest area is that we have faith in our scramble defence and throughout this championship that faith has been rewarded for the most part.

So although we couldn’t seem to buy our way into the French 22 for the first quarter, their dominance with possession was making them do a lot of work with little reward except for two Machenaud penalties.  6-0 down wasn’t ideal, but I certainly wasn’t worried because we wouldn’t know where we stood until we had a chance to have a line-out deep in their territory.

It was success at another set-piece that gave us that chance.  When I try to put together my “team of the tournament” I have to stop myself naming the entire Irish pack, but when it comes to the front five I feel I must insist - yes, even with “Lawes-bury” doing so well for England.

Though the scrum traction we had on the day was from Mike Ross against Domingo on his side, our entire front row has been excellent and it was down to them that we finally had our first lineout in their 22.  And though we didn’t opt for the lineout/maul, it was our success with it so far in the tournament that forced the French to commit numbers which in turn gave us the space we needed.

It took a super “Gidley” pass from Chris Henry to get Jonny Sexton in for our first try but although the subsequent conversion miss took the shine off a bit, the fact that we were able to make such hay so quickly after seeing some sunshine in the French defence had to be a huge boost to the side.

We had another opportunity to make hay a few minutes later when Louis Picamoles, who was wearing 6 but still played 8 at many scrums, dropped a simple catch inside his own half.  Meanwhile, Alain Rolland was somewhere  making a slow, ironic hand-clapping gesture at his television screen.

This time we didn’t need the lineout, we had a power-play right off the scrum.  Bash from BOD into the 22, Murray spots a gap and goes for it (obviously given the green light this week after missing similar chances against Italy) and there’s Trimble in perfect support to go over.  No mistake with the conversion this time and it’s 12-6.

Now we were in the zone where I had my biggest concern.  Could we hold our lead to the end?  And it wasn’t our defence which had me worried, it was what we did when we had the ball.

Full credit to this group of French players.  Whether they were doing it for their coach or for themselves, they gave it their all for the full 80 and you could tell how much it meant to them.  And once they had their own lineout in our 22, they were able to provide that bit of flair we all expect from them in this great competition.

They knew if they persisted with phases on our tryline the odds were that they’d be thwarted.  It would take something like a pinpoint crossfield kick from their out-half, superb agility & quick-thinking from their winger and excellent support from their full-back and in Tales, Huget & Dulin they had all of the above.  Conversion good, France back in front. 

Game on!  I was a little bit worried because around this stage of the game I thought our offence was stuttering…our own kicks weren’t the most accurate and I felt we were persevering with set plays along the back line even when the French appeared to have them sussed. 

Though the “ABL” brigade took great glee in bashing Sexton over his missed placekicks, I was more concerned about his failure to (pardon the gridiron term but i can’t think of a better one) “call an audible” when necessary.

But even with his missed penalty on the stroke of halftime (when he over-compensated for the earlier push past the other upright), the interval was always going help us and the 1-point deficit wasn’t the worst outcome to the first 40 all things considered.

The body language of the two squads returning to the field spoke volumes… the Irish had a spring in their step while the French looked sullen and broody.  But one thing you can count on from Les Bleus - whatever their state of mind, if you give them a sniff on the field of play they’ll come at you with everything they have.

Phillipe St Andre made a sensible move at halftime by removing Domingo, who despite shipping multiple penalties including a clearly professional foul at the end of the half didn’t tempt a card from Walsh’s pocket so they effectively had a clean slate.

And as soon as there was some some broken field play in the second half the French were right in on top of us again.  This was a match where it was hard to find one “key moment” but I think you’ll be hard pressed to beat Paul O’Connell’s turnover as our defence was being stretched inside our 22.  A try at that moment could have been curtains for our title hopes.

But although the French came back at us it was Rob Kearney who helped clear our lines twice more…the first with an excellent clearance with his boot, and the second led to our third and ultimately trophy-winning try.

Having snagged a loose ball he made one of his now-commonplace jinks to earn some territory (pretty sure he has led our “metres gained” stats in every match); it then went quickly out wide to Trimble who found the perfect line and galloped into the French 22. 

He could probably have dummied and scored himself but no matter - the support was not only plentiful but also useful.  BOD from 2000 could probably have finished but instead the 2014 version cut inside, again no matter….the pack including Paulie had also run the length of the pitch and we had enough to get Sexton over for his second.  He made a bit of a meal of the extra two from in front but who cared, we were ahead by 6.

It was a clear narrative throughout this Irish display….when we get into your 22, we’re going to  score - so you’d better take your chances at the other end.  This was further shown a few minutes later when we added another pen to make it a 9 point lead.  Did we dare to dream?

Trust me…there were no cockerels being counted by any Irish fan just yet.

Again we seemed to be reluctant to play things simply with the ball.  A crossfield kick by Sexton had me fuming at one point and the play was getting scrappy once more.  BOD then tackled Fickou without the ball and they were in our 22 again.

Earlier in the contest Tales missed a drop goal (Henry’s involvement helped) and with just under 20 left on the clock you’d have forgiven the French for taking a 3-pointer with this red zone opportunity but even after Cian Healy’s brainfart of a head-first dive conceded a pen (and could have conceded much, much worse, pick your colour of card) they only had eyes for the 7 points and this stands to their credit.

Yet although they did eventually breach our defences courtesy of Szarzewski, I can’t understand why the TMO didn’t at least have a look as it really did seem like is slipped out of his grasp as he tried to put it down. 

But the score was given, the conversion went over, the lead was just two, squeaky bum time.

Then the bench started to clear for both sides…some changes were planned, some not.  Gordon D’Arcy came off after his last shift in green with you-know-who.  Sexton seemed to be out cold after a forearm smash from Bastareaud and on came Ian Madigan for a 12-minute cameo that must have had his pulse racing from the moment he unzipped his jacket.

And when Walsh awarded the French a scrum penalty of their own in a kickable position, it seemed like we were going to need some ROG-like heroics from the young Leinster outhalf to win it, but guess what…the French kickers can miss too and Doussain pushed it wide.

Just keep the feckin ball, I screamed.  Whether I screamed it in my head or out loud you’ll have to ask those around me.  Madigan made good with his clearing kicks from his own 22, and as the clock ticked past 75m we managed to put together an impressive series of about 17 phases before young Iain Henderson was pinged for going off his feet at the breakdown.

Curse you, Walsh, but like I said this can’t be about you.

As much as we didn’t want to say it every Irish fan was having deja vu as the French marched into our 22.  And as the ball went out wide and they had a clear overlap, it seemed our worst fears were going to materialise.

But the if the three on that overlap were Tales, Huget and Dulin, the outcome would have been pretty much certain.  In this case, however, it was forwards Dubaty, Pape and Chouly and between them O’Driscoll and Dave Kearney did absolutely everything they could to prevent that ball going through the hands.

FORRRRRRRWARRRRRRRRRDDDDDDD!!!!!!

Go on, tell me you shouted it too, it’s ok.

I had no problem with the TMO looking at it - I did have a problem with Walsh asking for a compass to be dragged out to see what angle Pape’s hands were at as he released the ball, but in the end none of it mattered, no try.

The tension wasn’t over, though…we still had to avoid shipping another scrum pen.  Though I thought the French pushed way too early (and I’m sure you could find an infringement on our side) nothing was given but the French took it against the head and it was all hands to the pumps again for one final flurry.

Any team after an energy-sapping 5 matches in 7 weeks would be forgiven for folding at that stage.  But not only were our boys up to the challenge, it was one we weren’t necessarily ready for as it had been our put-in.  Henderson more than made up for the earlier pen by chopping down the first carrier and finally, not to mention fittingly, it was a choke tackle on the monster French sub Vahaamahina by Henry, Toner and O’Connell which ended the match.

Again, I don’t want to draw attention to Mr Pretty-Boy ref, but jaysus, it took him an age to make the call, but thank BOD he did.

And so it was over, and our celebrations could begin.  You couldn’t blame the French TV folks for giving man-of-the-match to O’Driscoll.  You COULD blame them for some shoddy camera work, but that’s for another day.  Point is, we can let Mr Trimble know how much he meant to this team ourselves, and together with the welcome sight of Sexton up and able to receive his medal it was the trophy presentation that provided the day’s most special moment for Irish fans.

I gave my BOD accolades last week, so this time I can focus on Joe Schmidt and what he has brought to this Ireland team, together of course with the support of Messrs Kiss & Plumtree.  Since his appointment there has been a negative mindset among a section of Irish fans, and on Friday that mindset was given a name in Denis Leamy.

All I have to say on this is…it was a championship won without players like Stephen Ferris, Tommy Bowe, Sean O’Brien, Simon Zebo, Richardt Strauss, Luke Fitzgerald, Donncha Ryan, the list goes on and on.  You can judge Schmidt by the players he didn’t pick or you can judge by the results, it’s up to you.

But when you watch back over the 400 minutes of rugby the Irish team have put in to earn this title, you’ll see the very same thing Leinster fans saw over the previous three years…only it’s not about Leinster any more for Joe, it’s all about four proud provinces and that green jersey.  He wants this beautiful game played in his own way and if you want to buy into it, chances are there’s a medal in it for you.

So I for one am celebrating this weekend and nothing can rain on my St Patrick’s Day parade.  Despite the gaping hole left at 13 I still firmly believe we have a group of players capable of sustaining this level of consistency all the way to RWC2015 and beyond.

Thank you, Joe. JLP

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Also this weekend

Italy 11 - 52 England

Wales 51 - 3 Scotland

FINAL TABLE P W D L PD PTS
IRELAND 5 4 0 1 83 8
ENGLAND 5 4 0 1 73 8
WALES 5 3 0 2 43 6
FRANCE 5 3 0 2 1 6
SCOTLAND 5 1 0 3 -91 2
ITALY 5 0 0 5 -109 0

France Women 19-15 Ireland Women

France Under-20s 23 - 13 Ireland Under-20s

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