The one that got away
March 4, 2012
Ireland's Tommy Bowe is congratulated on a try by captain Paul O'Connell © Getty Images
Amazingly, it has been 12 long years since a hat-trick from a fresh-faced Brian O'Driscoll propelled Ireland to their last win in Paris. They will never have a better chance to end that drought than they had in the French capital on Sunday.
Declan Kidney's side were back to their all-action best in the opening period at the Stade de France, with a superb tempo and brutal physicality silencing a formidable if off-colour French side and a capacity crowd, who wasted no time in breaking out the slow hand clap with their Grand Slam hopes seemingly fading fast.
Clearly in possession of the blueprint for a rare success, it was surely a case of more of the same from the visitors and a morale-boosting victory, one that would bolster their own Six Nations title hopes, would be in the bag. This is an Ireland side that has struggled for consistency and this is France - the original Jekyll and Hyde of the rugby union world. With that in mind, it is perhaps of little surprise that Ireland were kept scoreless after the break while France found some form to turn the game around - only to be thwarted by a late rally from an Irish team determined not to see all their hard work go to waste.
There are many positives for Ireland to take from this game - aside from the result, which represents their best return in Paris for over a decade - and it was infinitely more rewarding than the game that didn't happen during the big freeze last month. Winger Tommy Bowe's rich vein of form produced two more tries although his option to kick and chase in the lead up to his second score when equally impressive fullback Rob Kearney appeared to be on his shoulder may warrant some attention in the post-match review.
The whole team's work rate was phenomenal in the opening stanza, with their rush defence simply outstanding. They managed to shackle their formidable opponents on their own patch with the now familiar 'choke' tackle used to full effect throughout. Such a level of exertion was always going to take its toll and while there was the inevitable drop off in intensity the fatigue was also evident in an increasingly error-prone and penalty-laden second half display.
The loss of scrum-half Conor Murray to a knee injury also served as a blow to Ireland's hopes and may yet hurt them still if the tackle-hungry No.9's expression as he left the field on a stretcher is anything to go by. He was not alone in terms of industry with Ireland's back-row trio of Stephen Ferris, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip hitting their straps as a unit for the first time in a long time.
France were lucky to still be in the contest at half-time. Sloppy, lazy and almost disinterested at times they looked far from Grand Slam material - a fact this result underlined. A woeful pass from centre Aurelien Rougerie gifted one try to Bowe and he may have had another such was the generosity of a French side seemingly intent on repaying those Irish fans forced to stump up for two trips to Paris in the same Championship. Out of sorts and ideas with ball in hand, it was not pretty on the eye but thankfully they remembered who they were after the break.
Ireland's Rory Best and Tommy Bowe gang up on France's Pascal Pape © Getty Images
Fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc offered some deft touches while the contribution offered by the likes of captain Thierry Dusautoir and No.8 Imanol Harinordoquy was not so subtle but equally profitable. Seemingly on a roll after a try from the prolific Wesley Fofana, whose score owed as much to Dusautoir as it did to Ireland's eagerness to press in defence, it appeared the game would turn full circle only for Ireland to re-group and sow a seed of doubt in their rivals' new-found confidence. They dug deep late into the game, with that effort epitomised by Kearney and Bowe's tackle on winger Julien Malzieu in the last act of the game.
The visitors' courageous defensive showing, along with France's lack of composure in the red zone, prevented this game ending like so many before it in this venue. But there will be no sense of relief in the Ireland changing room or among their deep-pocketed fans - the over-riding emotion will be one of frustration. This is one that got away. The visit of Scotland should hold no fear for the Irish on the back of this showing while England will take heart ahead of their trip to Paris.
It wouldn't be a Six Nations weekend without a bit of referee controversy and so step forward Dave Pearson. No stranger to a dubious call, having been the man who deemed Bradley Davies' off-the-ball assault on Donnacha Ryan during Wales' narrow victory over Ireland last month a mere yellow card offence, Pearson's decision-making was again called into question at the Stade de France, although on this occasion Ireland were the beneficiary.
Ireland prop Cian Healy somehow managed to escape a yellow card for some laughable and arguably game-changing lazy running that threw a spanner in France's works. A more blatant infringement you are unlikely to see and while France were not exactly firing on all cylinders at the time, Healy's well-timed foray into their back division as he attempted to shake off an injury and re-join his side's defensive effort was a professional foul and should have resulted in a spell in the bin. Instead a quiet word in captain Paul O'Connell's ear was his course of action. Questionable no doubt, while his decision to go to the Television Match Official for Wesley Fofana's second half try was just baffling.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.