Monday, February 13, 2006

Was Ireland's Comeback Meaningless?

Let's be clear on one thing. Ireland were remarkably close to pulling off the greatest comeback in the history of rugby - indeed, probably since Jesus went to pay his respects at his mate Lazarus' funeral - last Saturday in Stade de France. Had they managed to score a fifth try following another O'Driscoll break instead of being penalised there is enough evidence to suggest that the French, exhausted and in disarray, would have yielded the match.

So can an Irish team who came close to pulling off such a feat be forgiven the embarassment of the first fifty minutes?France's capitulation in the second half cannot be taken in isolation, of course. Their blitz defence, up close tackling and dominant scrummaging, which contributed largely to Ireland's downfall, all demanded a physical effort which was such that once the match was seen to have been secured, and handsomely so, the plug was pulled.

As slipshod as Ireland had been, they had too much talent to be afforded the freedom of St.Denis. Where their misplaced attempts at expansiveness in the first half had been eagerly crushed by the frenetic French effort, so in the second half the natural running and ball-carrying ability in the side - in particular O'Driscoll and D'Arcy in the backs, O'Connell, Wallace and Leamy in the forwards - profited handsomely from the hosts' almost total reversal of intensity. By the time France realised what was happening, it was almost too late to shift back up the gears.

But what use is this? For the second week in a row Ireland's desire to move the ball wide has been halted by a side defending in their faces, and by the fact that their inability to secure a solid scrum meant that they were consistently attempting to run bad ball. If it can be said that Ireland handed France four tries on Saturday, it must be added that at the root of those errors was the kind of scrappy, uncontrolled, rushed possession that came from Ireland's routing up front.

We know Ireland have talented backs, but it seems that the set-pieces are unable to provide them with the control of the game to properly use their ability. Also, when people ask why the Leinster backs struggled to produce their Heineken Cup form for Ireland, they forget that Felipe Contepomi, the sublime architect for the province, does not pull on a green number ten jersey.

I fear that Saturday's stirring comeback will remain a curio of this championship, to be looked back on in puzzlement. As foolish as the French looked in their miscalculation of Ireland's recovery ability, they can be forgiven for giving a sucker an even break, as, for the first fifty minutes - not to put too fine a point on it - Ireland certainly did suck.


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