There is something unreal about Rugby World Cup warm-up matches. While France’s 11th victory over Ireland in 12 Tests was full-blooded and intense, it is not often in sport that the winning coach berates his players for settling the contest too early.
When François Trinh-Duc intercepted an errant pass from the erratic Tomás O’Leary, seven minutes into the second-half, France went 26-8 up and started to think about New Zealand. Ireland then allowed their coach, Declan Kidney, to focus on pluses by scoring two late tries, but his team had taken a backward step.
“We are not shouting too much about the two victories over Ireland,” said the France coach, Marc Lièvremont, who had made 13 changes to the side that won 19-12 in Bordeaux the week before. “We have to do better individually and collectively. I almost regret the Trinh-Duc try because it allowed us to manage the game and there were no interesting moments for us. I expected more.”
Kidney expected much more and he will go into Saturday’s match against England here looking for his first win of the month, if last week’s demolition of Connacht by a shadow side is discounted. While Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy negotiated their return from injury (although the former was left with a sore shoulder), Paul O’Connell played the full 80 minutes and Jerry Flannery made an impact from the bench, Cian Healy complicated the selection of the World Cup squad by picking up an injury. O’Leary and Luke Fitzgerald, sure picks at the start of the year, are low on confidence. Felix Jones was injured and has been ruled out of the 30.
Ireland were so slipshod – their poor passing was summed up late on when Keith Earls spotted O’Driscoll unmarked on the left wing and threw the ball behind his captain and into touch – that the key match in their pool looks not to be Australia, but Italy. Perhaps the sight of England, although France donned an all-white strip on Saturday, will galvanise Kidney’s men, but a month of demanding fixtures that was arranged to put Ireland on a peak before they left for Auckland has left them scrambling around base camp.
“There are no panic buttons being pressed,” said O’Driscoll. “This is not the World Cup – we are not at the group stage yet. We showed in the first 15 minutes that we can do it and that we can handle the intensity. We just have to front up in the collision area and although we did not win the game, we are building on the finished product and we have work to do before England.”
It had looked so different as Ireland took an eight-point lead and dominated possession. France stirred themselves when Trinh-Duc replaced David Skrela, who was run over by Sean O’Brien, and their back row, which included Fulgence Ouedraogo, a player branded as childish last autumn by Lièvremont after a row over selection, gained ascendancy.
If Lièvremont saw Saturday as an opportunity to prove that Ouedraogo was not worth a place in the World Cup squad, he was quickly forced to re-evaluate as the Montpellier captain, in tandem with a rampant Louis Picamoles and a destructive Julien Bonnaire, so squeezed Ireland at the breakdown that the tackle area became a prime source of points for the visitors.
O’Leary unravelled under the pressure and how Kidney would relish having one of the scrum-halves available to Lièvremont, Morgan Parra and Dimitri Yachvili, conductors who ensure the right notes are struck. At the end of the Six Nations it was France, rather than Ireland, who were navel-gazing, a first tournament defeat by Italy prompting another emotional outburst from the coach, who accused his players of cowardice.
Lièvremont does not enjoy the same access to his players as his Six Nations rivals, something that grates on him after England’s deal with the Premiership clubs, but he is not disadvantaged in the build-up to a World Cup and, whatever his shortcomings, France are so saturated in talent and so compelling a mixture of grace and grunt that they will often be an accident of coaching.
When the mood prevails, they have the power of a tornado. Ireland have concerns at scrum-half, openside flanker and wing where, without Tommy Bowe, they lack pace. They could do with the Rob Kearney of two years ago at full-back. But their position is far from hopeless, even if the result against England on Saturday now matters more than the performance.
Source : www.guardian.co.uk