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Self-respect regained after stirring last push in Paris

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

“It’s hard to sum up,” said Eddie O’Sullivan afterwards. “We showed incredible guts and determination and a lesser team would have walked away. It’s mixed emotions, I’m very proud. The score was built up on our mistakes and I just told the lads hang onto the ball and good things will happen. It was sucker punch after sucker punch for a while but for the bounce of a ball we would be celebrating victory. I’m very proud of the lads. They didn’t get what they deserve but that’s sport.”
The pity of it all was that it took finding themselves down in a hole before they started reaching for the stars. Vincent Clerc’s first-half hat-trick for France was ruthless as morning in the abattoir. France had literally three chances and no more, which was good for Ireland because as it turned out they needed no more. That was the difference in an arguably even enough first period – each of France’s chances ended with Clerc crossing the line and touching down whereas the couple of times Ireland got close to the French line, basic handling errors let them down and they turned the ball over.
That was the worst of it. Any small slip by Ireland was punished. For Clerc’s first try, Eoin Reddan was bullied out of a ruck by Castres lock Lionel Nallet and while Ireland hesitated momentarily at what looked like a possible penalty, Jean-Baptiste Elissalde clocked that Clerc had 50 yards populated only by Denis Leamy between him and the line. His kicked was tape-measured to just short of the line and Clerc could have thrown in a cartwheel in beating Leamy to it. And all because Ireland didn’t fight hard enough to secure the original ball, leaving a titch of a scrum-half to be upended by a lump of a second-row. For want of a nail, and all that.
The third one was, if not an identical twin, then at the very least a first cousin to the opener. Ireland were, up to a point, motoring at this stage, linking together encouragingly in midfield with Andrew Trimble prominent and Reddan sniping all the while. But as they’d already found out earlier, all it needed was one pass not to go to hand and when O’Gara dropped a handy one right in the centre, he was set upon by half the French pack and the ball was turned over. Cedric Heymans went from zero-to-Asafa Powell in the blink of an eye and put Clerc away with a slipped pass. It was 19-6 and France had only put the hammer down three times.
And when Heymans ran in a lucky fourth try eight minutes into the second half that appeared to be that. Ireland hadn’t been significantly worse than France but such was the ferocity with which they’d been punished when they’d erred, you just couldn’t see them surviving the rest of the game unscathed. But then they went about clawing their way back into matters and, wonder of wonders, almost pulled it off.
Brian O’Driscoll spoke afterwards of the part played by Ronan O’Gara in a team meeting on Friday night, when the Munster out-half spoke candidly and honestly about what playing for Ireland should be about these days. O’Gara, whose World Cup experience was the most miserable of a bunch in which competition for that dubious honour was keen, controlled the game in that second half and had much to be proud of. In his ever-chippy fashion, however, he refused to see the silver linings in the game’s aftermath.
“A lot happens in sport, as in you can look after your own situations,” he said. “For Munster I’m used to winning and I expected to win today. From a personal point of view I’m very disappointed, from a team point of view very disappointed. I hope fellas aren’t happy with where they are. At the end of the day we were beaten again in Paris. That’s the bottom line.
“I think we’re trying to get credibility back in the Irish team and so far we haven’t done that and I think today we took a step in the right direction, but this team needs a win. It’s been a long time since Ireland have played well as a team and all I asked for was that we were honest, and I think we were honest today. But we need to kick on.”
And kick on they almost did in that second half. This wasn’t a repeat of Paris two years ago when they threw absolute caution to the wind and swung from the hip. Instead, this was dogged, cussed rugby. It was old-school, forward-led, fight, fight and fight some more. They replaced Malcolm O’Kelly with Mick O’Driscoll and both line-out and scrum improved as a result. They chipped away and chipped away, forcing a penalty try from a five-metre scrum on 58 minutes and hauling David Wallace over for another four minutes later. Somehow a 26-6 deficit had been turned into a 26-18 one with just over 15 minutes to go.
An O’Gara penalty got them to within five but hunt and harry as they might in the closing minutes they came up just short. Still, some colour has finally been put back into the cheeks of Irish rugby. That’s something, at least.

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