France complete Grand Slam in style
April 6, 2002
Aurelien Rougerie of France breaks away to score
© Getty Images
France completed the Grand Slam in style at the Stade de France on Saturday with a crushing 44-5 victory over Ireland.
Fly-half Gerald Merceron was at the heart of what turned into a total destruction of the visitors, combining his imaginative running play with a deadly boot which produced 16 points.
England could only watch on in envy from their Italian hideaway as their Paris conquerors inflicted similar damage on an Irish side which had been expected to cause them problems.
After four near misses, how galling it must have been for Clive Woodward to watch France walk off with the prize which has eluded him for so long.
Yet, how richly French coach Bernard Laporte deserves all the accolades which will come his way after a performance which even eclipsed the one which denied England.
With Serge Betsen and Nicolas Brusque running in a brace each and Aurelien Rougerie adding the other touchdown, France went within a point of inflicting Ireland's highest defeat in the history of the competition.
As it was, the home side had to settle for the biggest win in 77 meetings between the two teams, and this against an Irish side who have enjoyed a resurgence in fortunes over the past 18 months and have clearly proved too good for their other Celtic foes Scotland and Wales.
The sense of anticipation among a capacity crowd only increased during an emotional rendering of 'La Marseillaise' as the crowd stood with cards above their heads to produce a huge French flag.
With so much at stake, home nerves would have been understandable, but within two minutes any French fears had evaporated when Serge Betsen charged in for the opening try.
Merceron was the architect, as he was so often during a first-half landslide.
The Montferrand fly-half dribbled a kick through the Irish defence, scooped up the loose ball and charged for the line.
Ireland held him out, and did the same to Olivier Magne in the right corner. But when the ball sped left they ran out of numbers, giving Betsen the space to race home.
Merceron converted before the visitors briefly rallied, skipper Keith Wood driving home after front-row partner Peter Clohessy had gone close on his final international start.
After that though, a blue tidal wave engulfed the dazed Irish side. Two Merceron penalties advanced the lead to safe proportions, before the stand-off provided Nicolas Brusque with a defence-splitting pass for the second home try.
Midfield duo Tony Marsh and Damien Traille were heavily involved in the build-up and were starting to create holes in the Irish defence, as was number eight Imanol Harinordoquy, one of the finds of the competition, who darted down the blind side to cause the visitors more problems.
The slick French handling was impressive, emphasised by lock Olivier Brouzet and prop Pieter de Villiers combining to create another running opportunity.
With Merceron ceaselessly probing, skipper Fabien Galthie had become something of a bit-part player, until he stooped to gather a loose ball Ireland had lost in contact.
France's rampaging forwards provided support and with Merceron stepping into the scrum-half berth, Aurelien Rougerie took possession with half the field in front of him and no-one with the pace to prevent the winger flying to the line.
Merceron converted, added penalties either side of the interval, and France were virtually home.
It was not the way Clohessy would have chosen to end his distinguished international career, but by the time the 36-year-old prop made his way to the touchline, France had scored again.
Galthie was again the provider, spotting Betsen lurking dangerously down the blind side of a ruck barely five metres from the line.
Clohessy's departure brought rapturous applause from the visiting supporters who had waited over an hour for something to cheer.
They had nothing else, as France completed the rout with clinical efficiency.
With the game won, Merceron gave way to young Agen stand-off Francois Gelez and the 21-year-old's first task was to boot over a confidence-boosting penalty.
Gelez was then involved as France streaked downfield for their fifth try, driving down the centre, before Marsh released Brusque for his second.
With the crowd jubilant and the clock ticking into injury-time, Ireland stood on the brink of total humiliation. But Gelez's conversion attempt bounced back of an upright.
Ireland had kept one record, this French team might create a few more yet.