So much for the bad old days being past tense. With 20 minutes to go at the Stade de France yesterday, Ireland were 24 points behind and staring down the barrel of a 40-pointer. It was as if the Grand Slam had never
That they only went down by 20 in the end was down to a combination of battered pride and the fact that France declared their innings. Not for the first time in recent history, Ireland only started to cause the French real discomfort once doubt had been removed from the result. The ledger by day's end said 33-10 to the home side.
It was Declan Kidney's first defeat in the Six Nations and Ireland's first together since the All Blacks came to Croke Park in November 2008. And as they spend the coming days locating the reasons for it, Mervyn?Murphy's video compilation might as well have Benny Hill music over it. So numerous were the handling errors that at times Ireland looked like kids trying to catch a balloon in a bouncy castle. They knocked on all day, they dropped passes like the ball was made of blades. Very little went right.
"We made it hard for ourselves," said Brian O'Driscoll. "There were bad defensive errors, we didn't take our opportunities. There were a lot of unforced errors and it was very difficult to put any sort of phase together. As a whole we played quite poorly today. We lost our shape at times, maybe we panicked a bit and we didn't take the right options when we got into their territory. Momentum is swung on little things and it didn't go our way."
Which isn't to say that France were undeserving. Far from it. In Imanol Harinordoquy, they had the game's outstanding performer. And anyone who spent the week scoffing at the idea that Mathieu Basteraud had O'Driscoll's number got their answer too. The stocky French centre's hand-off and offload for Clement Poitrenaud's game-sealing try was car-bomb emphatic.
It wasn't all a nightmare. Indeed for the opening 20 minutes or so, there was nothing between the sides. And if the bounce of the ball had gone Gordon D'Arcy's way when running through after 15 minutes, Ireland would have taken the lead. It squirted clear though and Ireland were soon in oxygen debt.
The whole shape of the game was bent and mangled by the 10 minutes Cian Healy spent in the bin halfway through. Alun Wyn Jones got a text during the week from Paul O'Connell to tell him to keep his chin up after the needless yellow card against England; maybe Jones will return the favour and seek out the Leinster prop in the coming days. His tug on Morgan Parra wasn't quite as blatant as Jones's trip last Saturday but it was as deadly – in the spell he spent on the sideline, France put 10 points on the board.
A game that had been wrenched tight like nuts on a car wheel was loosened in a trice. Although Ireland tried to keep possession when they were down to 14 men, the cracks left by the absence of Healy and Stephen Ferris (replaced by Tom Court to facilitate the scrums) could only be papered over for so long. And when Jerry Flannery drew a kick at Alexis Palisson after Ireland already had a penalty, it was all the fortune France needed.
Within minutes they were 10-0 up . Camped on the Irish line for dropped scrum after dropped scrum, they eventually spun it off the back to put their hooker William Servat in under the posts. Yannick Jauzion trundled over on the half-hour – after a fine break from Basteraud – to give them breathing space. And after a heroic try-line stand at the end of the first half kept a 14-point margin going into the break, Poitrenaud's try on the hour scotched what drama there might have been.
So that's that then. No more Grand Slam talk and the championship looks unlikely too with Twickenham in a fortnight. Fun while it lasted though, eh?