The day was ugly and the play wasn’t in any way easy on the eye, but it’s hardly likely that anyone will remember those kinds of details for too long. No. What will linger in the memory here is an Irish side that won a game it really didn’t deserve to against a team that cleaned it out in Paris a year ago. Whatever else is happening, Eddie O’Sullivan’s men are moving up in the world.
They had to fight for this one. The triumphs over Italy and Scotland were frolicking, fun-filled affairs with tries and wingers and intricate back line moves. This was a day for the boneshakers. A day for tacklers and triers, for hulks who eked out the hardest of yards. And Ireland had them. Kevin Maggs and Brian O’Driscoll put in the hits, Malcolm O’Kelly and Marcus Horan helped them out. Anthony Foley and Victor Costello put in their usual yeoman work when they got a hold of the ball, and Shane Byrne got every one of his lineout throws spot-on. The whole Irish side put in a hugely impressive day of guts and intensity and although few would have grumbled had France managed a draw, there weren’t too many French voices complaining afterwards.
But for all the attrition, the game still had its moments. Well, its moment. Two minutes in, Peter Stringer lost the first of a few battles with his counterpart, Dimitri Yachvilli. The French scrum-half managed to disrupt his distribution from a scrum and the ball squirted untidily toward Murphy’s feet. The Leicester full-back hardly blinked despite having to completely change direction, gathered, steadied himself and dropped a soaring goal from 45 yards out. All the talk of how special an attacking force the Naas man is was justified right in that movement.
That was as good as it got, however. From then on, it was a matter of whoever could make the fewest mistakes. Afterward, France’s manager, Bernard Laporte, shook his head and said sadly that his players just didn’t have the discipline to win this sort of match. Whether the malaise goes deeper than this one afternoon is a matter for him and his future, but on Saturday, he was right. Ireland managed a 12-3 lead at halftime having spent a lot less time in their opponents’ half and having had a lot less of the ball. Murphy’s wizardry apart, this was due to Frenchmen not minding their manners.
Well, one Frenchman in particular. In the week before the game, much comment was devoted to Serge Betsen, the French marauder who lives right on the edge of the offside line and ever so slightly beyond it if the gods are kind to him. And the Irish lads said they hoped they were ready for him. Well, if they weren’t, referee Andre Watson was. Three times he called him for being rather too eager at ruck time and three times David Humphreys slotted over his punishment. As the wind whipped and the rain squalled, those were points worth double their usual weight.
France hauled themselves back into matters at the start of the second half, Francois Gelez adding two penalties to the one he managed in the first period. But all the while, both try lines remained intact and although Humphreys and Gelez swapped a further kick apiece, the scoreboard operators had a handy afternoon. As the clock ran dead, the Irish pack made one last effort at dominance. They pushed a French scrum back 7 of 8 yards and disrupted the untidy ball that came out. The crowd roared at the sight and it was then, for the first time in the afternoon, that Lansdowne began to believe the game was Ireland’s.
Now they just have to negotiate Wales in Cardiff in a fortnight to set up a Grand Slam showdown with England. Should be fun.
Ireland 15: G. Murphy, drop goal; D. Humphreys, 4 penalties. France 12: F. Gelez, 4 penalties.