Déjà vu in Stade de France. For the second consecutive Six Nations meeting at Saint Denis, Ireland gave the hosts a torrid second half examination and left the pitch feeling proud but mugged. Yet another one had got away.
Two rounds into a Championship devoid of a top class XV, Ireland could yet come to rue Vincent Clerc’s first-half hat-trick as much as they did his Grand Slam denying try at Croke Park last year.
Why? A cursory glance at our Six Nations opponents provides the pellets by which this particular musket can be both loaded and fired.
England are no great shakes, already proving that their run to the World Cup final merely papered over the cracks of a system producing hype rather than quality players.
The Ospreys – oops, I mean Wales – are just a game away from the Triple Crown and moving into genuine title contention. After all, France travel to Cardiff on the final weekend for what could be the Six Nations decider.
Yet despite flashes of quality (and the inspirational Martyn Williams) they’ve won both their opening games by virtue of not being as bad as England and Scotland were over 80 minutes.
While Warren Gatland will enjoy his honeymoon period, he will know in his heart that accident has played as big a part as design in his success by the Taff thus far.
Scotland, for all the progress their clubs have made in the Celtic League and European Cup this season, are a painfully, painfully limited team. Enough said.
The same argument could be made about Italy’s spirited backs, but Nick Mallett possesses a pack of some quality and a world class back row, which could prove critical when the Scots travel to Rome.
France? A much changed side from the World Cup and undoubtedly better to look at, but they’re as unfinished an article as a Brian Peters-promoted pugilist.
The coaching naïveté of Marc Lievremont almost contributed to his team’s downfall on Saturday, and he’ll surely know better when it comes to introducing inexperienced players from now on.
But he is blessed with a back three of extraordinary pace and in David Skrela appears to have a flyhalf whose all-round game is significantly improved.
Which brings us to Ireland, surely cursing why it took them 40 minutes to hold onto the ball properly, work it through a few phases and make both territory and possession count on the scoreboard.
For the first time in almost a year, the second half in Paris yielded a display that fans know this team is capable of producing.
Sure, a back line once described as Rolls Royce was still missing some key gear changes, but the pack was immense, moving like a green wrecking ball through the shell-shocked French cover.
In the minutes before Nigel Owens awarded Ireland’s penalty try, you could sense a change in the mood when the scrums engaged.
Donncha O’Callaghan clearly felt a fresh wind blowing through Irish sails, reddening his hands in applause as the front five began to turn the screw.
The intensity, power and aggression that France brought to the table in the opening 40 minutes, was being swallowed up by a rejuvenated Ireland.
The penalty try was just reward for the considerable brawn the visitors were expounding, puncturing France’s confidence in the process.
Ireland kept plugging away in a manner that they hadn’t for eight games and it looked like the weight of the World Cup had finally lifted from their shoulders.
Not only that, but it was if the Irish players collectively remembered that they’re a bloody useful side, capable of winning big tussles.
Witnessing the increasing maturity of O’Callaghan, the gain-line breaking power of Brian O’Driscoll and significant contributions from Jamie Heaslip and Mick O’Driscoll offered particular encouragement.
There were far more plusses then minuses to report upon: Ronan O’Gara was his usual brilliant self, Rob Kearney demonstrated that he’s up to the task required at this level and Bernard Jackman did well in open play.
The hooker’s throwing was a different matter but he’ll surely get another chance to put that wrong to right.
Unfortunately, Geordan Murphy’s tackling deficiencies were once again demonstrated against the French and he’ll do well to hold onto his starting berth.
So who knows, maybe Ireland’s form winger – Tommy Bowe – might get a look in ahead of either converted full-back for the visit of Scotland.
For the second successive year, it could well prove that defeat to France will ultimately cost Ireland both the Grand Slam and the Championship.
In a tournament as open as this, there’s little that any of the nations really has to fear. Italy could well have two wins from two such has been the nature of the games to date – so too could Ireland, with their most difficult fixture out of the way.
But there’s no avoiding the fact that any team cannot hope to win a match by producing 40 minutes of quality play, not that Ireland played particularly poorly in the opening half.
Ireland’s back three can’t engage the afterburners the way that Rougerie, Heymans and Clerc can. Their pace, combined with a lucky deflection off Brian O’Driscoll’s groin, ulimtately proved the difference between the sides.
Pride has been restored and references to the World Cup can finally be put to bed. But Ireland must stop giving teams the sort of head start they gave the French last weekend.
Eddie O’Sullivan didn’t become a bad coach overnight, nor did this team become a poor XV either. But let’s hope that whatever malaise was in the system is gone for good, so that all who enjoy the game can’t get back to talking about affairs on the field of play. There is still a Championship that can be won.