Monday, February 9, 2009

Ireland 30 France 21 - a miracle match

Oh what a ride that was! We sat down Saturday evening partly fearing a nervy kickfest of a game between two sides who didn't want to lose and instead we got a giant slugfest of flowing, attacking rugby, two teams who tore into each other for eighty minutes, five wonderful tries and countless individual performances of note. France charmed us for the opening hour with the rhythm and beauty of what they were trying to do; so much so that we found ourselves cheering for Les Bleus at one stage. But Ireland's sheer willpower won us over, that and some genuine ambition and fantasy rugby of their own. In the end, that mentality won the game as well.

But boy was it a hard-fought win. The peerless Gerry Thornley says in the Irish Times this morning that the Ireland of last season or two years ago would have been beaten and he's dead right. In fact, we would have been slaughtered I feel. This was a France team - whether by accident or design from Marc Lievremont - that held true to their old values, running the ball in numbers from everywhere on the field and routinely picking Ireland apart with the variety of their lines in that opening half hour. Their first try was a breathtaking example of support play and how to punch holes in an opposing defence, going down one side and then the other before crossing the line. We feared a thrashing at that point. Beauxis at fly-half was controlling things; Chabal was running ball at will; Poitrenaud was imperious at full-back. Worst of all, the French had their tails up, and we know from experience how dangerous that can prove.

But Ireland hung in there. We kicked the ball far too often through Tomas O'Leary in the first half-hour but once we settled there was danger in Irish moves as well. Now our backs were running onto ball at speed rather than getting possession standing, which happened far too often under Eddie O'Sullivan. Jamie Heaslip finished a wonderful move with the shimmy of a winger to touch down. Brian O'Driscoll gave an inkling he's still got moves with the sort of burst he used come up with time and again, bashing through an opening at speed to create the second try. Ireland were rampant.

Yet France conjured up another moment of magic - Beauxis and Medard improvising an opening despite being outnumbered five to two on the right wing - for another try. A drop-goal made it a two-point game and Ireland were on the verge of buckling under constant pressure. That they didn't says a lot about the winning head Declan Kidney brings possibly. D'Arcy bundled over, and though France hit back with a penalty, Heaslip worked a penalty from the re-start.

Ireland were winners, and though we thought they got an awful lot of decisions from the ref, and the French showed a pile of flair and open rugby, it was a deserved win. For the bloodyminded refusal to give in, and for the few brilliant moves they worked. For Paul O'Connell's leadership and lineout dominance, for Rob Kearney's composure under pressure (he claimed six or seven catches like an established pro), for Heaslip's energy. A bit to go for sure, but Ireland can, for the first time in ages, take heart from being a serious outfit again.

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