France raise the bar in Paris
Graham Jenkins at the Stade de France
February 13, 2010
France captain Thierry Dusautoir gets to grips with Ireland's Paul O'Connell in Paris © Getty Images
Rarely does a sequel live up to the standards set by an original - think Teen Wolf Too, Caddyshack 2 or even Rocky II. But France's crushing Six Nations victory over Ireland at the Stade de France can lay claim to being even better than their impressive showing in clinically dismantling Scotland at Murrayfield last weekend. This was the Godfather Part II and almost as brutal in its own way.
The physicality that disposed of the Scots was again key to their success but it was laced with some breathtaking adventure that lit up an otherwise gloomy, and bitterly cold, day in Paris and which ultimately brought an end to Ireland's 12-game unbeaten run.
Wales and Scotland laid down the gauntlet in Cardiff with a pulsating clash and France and Ireland rose to the challenge with an incredible opening. The hosts displayed a thrilling willingness to run the ball from anywhere and in doing so dispelled the ridiculous notion offered by some that they had forsaken their flamboyant instincts in favour of a more power-based direct approach. The truth is that coach Marc Lievremont has conjured an ominous combination of the two that will have their Six Nations rivals rightly worried.
This is no ordinary Irish side they swept aside and mark my words - no other team in this Championship is going to beat them by 20+ points and force them to live off the kind of scraps offered by a stubborn French defence. As crowd-pleasing and headline-grabbing the attacking flair is, it the intensity of the defensive effort that is what currently stands this side apart from the rivals - most notably when the game was won.
This defeat will obviously be hard to take for an Irish side that has become accustomed to winning over the last couple of years - and it may be a little harder to stomach considering that they did not play badly - they just weren't allowed to play. They tried to meet fire with fire in the opening exchanges and could boast superiority at the lineout and parity at the scrum but eventually they had little answer to a French side determined to snuff out any hint of a danger at its source.
They certainly didn't help their own cause either with two rash moments of indiscipline that underlined the pressure they were feeling. Cian Healy's tug on the lively Morgan Parra was a blatant infringement to rank alongside Alun-Wyn Jones' indiscretion against England last Saturday. Ireland leaked 10 points in his absence and as the Welsh found out to their cost - it is near impossible to counter such a setback and Ireland were playing catch-up from that point on.
His error was followed by another from hooker Jerry Flannery who fly-hacked France winger Alexis Palisson but some how managed to escape a severe reprimand when he could have easily seen red. Instead it brought a premature end to Palisson's match, the wing having caught the eye until that point.
The eagerly awaited match-up between Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll and France's Mathieu Bastareaud failed to materialise with an early injury to the Irishman appearing to strike at the heart of his side's effort. O'Driscoll was still as industrious as ever but his backline struggled to escape the constant pressure exerted by their hosts. Bastareaud was unable to add to the two tries he notched last weekend but his sublime off-load to fullback Clement Poitrenaud for France's third try was equally of note.
The most eye-catching duel was between the No.8s - Ireland's Jamie Heaslip and France's Imanol Harinordoquy. The two giants traded barn-storming runs and big hits in an entertaining head-to-head that reminded us of the Frenchman's class and hastened his Irish rival's ascent to that elite group.
The Man of the Match was France fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc, who must have edged out his half-back partner Parra for the honour. Together they set the tone for an energetic team performance - answering those critics who had bemoaned their failure to capitalise on their side's dominance at Murrayfield. Trinh-Duc continues to grow in confidence while Parra also appears he belongs - and is here to stay.
La Marseillaise was ringing around the stadium midway through the second half - never a good sign for an opposing side - but to their credit Ireland's work-rate did not drop and they were rewarded with a try after a rare lapse from the home side but there was to be no late flurry of activity as there had been between these sides in 2006, and 2008 and in Cardiff only hours before. Of immediate concern to the Ireland camp in the wake of this game will be the physical toll it has taken on them with O'Driscoll and fullback Rob Kearney a worry with a trip to Twickenham awaiting them in a fortnight's time.
Welsh fans who may have spent the afternoon cowering behind the sofa as their team toyed with their emotions may be seeking solace there again with the prospect of France coming to town for the latest Friday Night Lights later this month. No matter your natural allegiance, it is nigh impossible not to be in awe of their approach and when it comes off - the end result.
It is hard to imagine this is the same side, albeit a little different, totally outclassed by New Zealand just a couple of months ago. What that says about the current state of northern hemisphere rugby is a debate for another day but for now they are looking a class apart.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.
Huw Richards assesses where Wales are after a mixed Six Nations, with front row seats still very much available for the World Cup
John Mitchell lapped up the action on 'Sensational Saturday' - but warns not to expect a repeat come Rugby World Cup time later this year
Craig Dowd warns England, Ireland and Wales they should play to their strengths rather than those of the All Blacks and the Wallabies
Tom Hamilton runs the rule over just where the six countries stand ahead of the global gathering in September