Ireland 30 – France 21: An encouraging start bodes well for an Irish team in search of that elusive Grand Slam, writes Dara Martin.
Ireland opened their 2009 Six Nations account with a moral-boosting victory over a gallant French side determined to show their attacking flair. Declan Kidney’s first Six Nations game in charge of the national team has restored a level of optimism and hope to the Irish public who haven’t had too much to cheer about lately. It was a game of huge intensity right until the dying minutes when Ronan O’Gara sealed the win with a penalty to give Ireland an unassailable lead.
A commanding performance from backs and forwards alike allowed Ireland to beat the French for the first time in seven attempts, while also putting 30 points on them for the time in 100 years. Kidney has utilised the magnificent man management skills that he is renowned for to mould the grunt of the Munster pack with the finesse of the Leinster back line, with some Ulstermen thrown in for good measure.
If he can bring the same winning mentality to the Irish team that brought Munster to two Heineken Cup victories then a Grand-Slam is surely on the cards. Unlike his predecessor, Eddie O’Sullivan, Kidney got his selection bang on and it paid off handsomely. While O’Sullivan frequently resisted the temptation to field young, exuberant players like Rob Kearney and Stephen Ferris in the big games, instead opting for more conservative choices like Girvan Dempsey and Simon Easterby, Kidney has thrown caution to the wind by trusting the natural ability of such young players, and by picking them in their best positions.
Brian O’Driscoll showed his form of old with an exceptional performance against France, and silenced his many critics of late who claimed he could no longer make an outside break. The Ireland captain justified his leadership role by setting an example to his teammates.
His defensive duties often go unnoticed but his countless turnovers on Saturday evening were almost as crucial to the outcome of the match as the try he scored just after half time. A well worked lineout move allowed scrumhalf Tomas O’Leary to feed O’Gara who spun a magnificent flat pass inviting O’Driscoll to run onto the ball. He then shrugged off Lionel Beauxis before side-stepping Maxime Medard to score near the posts. O’Driscoll’s try came at a vital point in the match, just after half-time, allowing the Irish side to carry momentum into the second half.
“Kidney’s men should have little to fear when the Sweet Chariot comes rolling into Croke Park in three weeks time”
O’Driscoll’s Leinster teammates; Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald and Jamie Heaslip, also had fantastic games, the latter completing a try-scoring and man-of-the-match display. In fact it would be extremely difficult to pick out any Irish player who had a bad game. Up front Paul O’Connell and David Wallace showed real aggression, while also keeping the marauding Sebastian Chabal on the back foot for most of the afternoon.
Ireland now has a large squad of world class players to choose from, with a replacements bench that offers real impact, and that is now being used tactically as opposed to a last resort in the case of an injury. Gordon D’Arcy, finally fully fit after a length spell on the sidelines, delighted the home crowd with a try after replacing Paddy Wallace who performed admirably in the centre alongside O’Driscoll. The fact that Rory Best, Denis Leamy and Geordan Murphy appeared off the bench displays our new found strength in depth.
It was somewhat unfortunate that the Ireland A game against the England Saxons was called off last Friday night due to the weather. It would have given players like Shane Jennings, Eoin Reddan and Bob Casey a chance play themselves into the first 22. Surely Danny Cipriani would also have loved to demonstrate to England coach Martin Johnson that he is good enough to be first choice fly-half, but it was not to be.
Up next for Ireland is Italy in Rome. The Italians came up short against a poor English side last Saturday. The risky strategy of playing flanker Mauro Bergamasco in the specialist role of scrumhalf backfired horribly for Italy coach Nick Mallet. Although England outscored the Italians by five tries to one, they were far from convincing while also conceding numerous penalties. Therefore Kidney’s men should have little to fear when the Sweet Chariot comes rolling into Croke Park in three weeks time. If all goes to plan Ireland should be playing Wales in Cardiff on the final weekend in a Championship decider. That is of course assuming we beat Italy, England and Scotland in the mean time.
There is off course the added incentive this year of selection for this summers Lions Tour to South Africa. O’Driscoll will surely want to avenge his disappointing tour to New Zealand four years ago, while many of his Irish teammates can play their way into the touring party over the coming weeks. A Triple Crown is no longer sufficient for this Irish team. They should have higher ambitions, and are well capable of achieving them judging by the performance displayed against a very talented French team. Let’s hope for the best.