How good did it feel to be Irish at tea-time on Saturday? How good did it feel to witness an Irish team stand up to such breathtaking French attack yet still emerge as thoroughly deserving victors? Astonishingly damn bloody good, that’s how it felt.
This was, without doubt, the finest non-GAA match ever played down Jones’s Road. Lansdowne Road, for that matter, has scarcely hosted a match of such quality, skill and endeavour since a ball was first kicked in anger down D4 way.
From start to finish, this was a game impossible to strip your vision from. For 80 minutes, this particular game of rugby kidnapped the watching nation’s senses and made all our troubles dissipate.
To hell with the kettle or that badly needed trip to the loo, both could wait until half-time. For good measure, both the recession and the cold snap faded from the collective psyche as two teams played rugby the way its spiritual leaders surely intended.
Some matches take time to assume legendary status. Yet should Ireland build on this result and claim a first Championship in 24 years or, dare we dream, a first Grand Slam since 1948, this pulsating fixture might top the all-time Irish hit parade. It was that good.
What made it all the more stunning a fixture was the manner in which France went about their task and it’s what made Ireland’s victory all the sweeter.
At times, and though Ireland hardly helped themselves with a deep box kick too many, ‘les Bleus’ reawakened memories of the man marvels Sella, Blanco and Ntamack proved on many a spring day.
For theirs was an effort devoid of cynicism, soaked in style and drenched with dash and dare. Even Sebastien Chabal turned the clock back to produce some devastating gallops, but, tellingly, the bearded one’s surges contributed to only one French score.
Yet Ireland deserved their win and of that there can be no argument, dispelling the notion that they can only break the tape if Ronan O’Gara is ticking every box all game long.
Declan Kidney knows only too well that this was a far from perfect display. France made hay in the channel between O’Gara and Paddy Wallace, with Tomas O’Leary – not, as some would suggest, kicking too much but just not effectively enough.
And that for me is why the public optimism regarding Ireland’s Six Nations chances are entirely justified.
For while they performed heroically at times and, more significantly, were incredibly clinical in both attack and defence, Ireland can play better than they did last Saturday.
Some of the statistics from Saturday’s game were most telling. Luke Fitzgerald put in a monstrous day’s work, making 13 tackles, two more than nearest rival Thierry Dusatoir.
Ireland made an incredible 95 tackles, 24 more than what the French mustered, which tells you how much of the match, the first half in particular, was played out.
This was a win achieved through hard graft every ounce as much as it was through attacking ingenuity – as complete a team performance as I can recall.
Just look at the ‘ruck and drive’ stat, for example, a tactic which Declan Kidney deployed in a devastating manner with Munster last season, something Marc Lievremont had no answer to: Ireland 32 France 15. At the fringes, as the numbers demonstrate, Ireland literally demolished France.
With Nigel Owens – Munster’s best friend – manning the whistle, it was always likely to prove a day when the French would run up a higher penalty count and that they duly did.
But Ireland’s discipline was notable, all the more so when one considers how heavily penalised the Munster pack, six of which started on Saturday, has been all season long. And for this, defensive coach Les Kiss can take a deserved bow.
The final penalty count from Saturday read Ireland 2 France 10, a critical figure given how compellingly competitive this fixture proved to be.
Despite the cohesiveness of the Irish effort, some stars shone a little brighter than others.
Rob Kearney, as anticipated, faced a deluge of French up-and-unders and fetched each kick with class, poise and precision.
And unless Ian McGeechan visits the same optician that two of Sunday’s umpires at Walsh Park clearly refuse to consult, then the Leinster man is a shoo-in for the Lions.
Before scoring that glorious 37th minute try, Jamie Heaslip had already proven white-hot, with back row colleagues Stephen Ferris and David Wallace also warming to their task with hard-hitting relish.
The Number Eight had an absolute monster of a game and thoroughly deserved his man of the match gong come game’s end.
Both the front and second rows were immense, as John Hayes again defied age and erosion while Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan produced what they generally always do: big hits and lineout dominance.
Brian O’Driscoll, who owes no-one anything given his service to Irish rugby, was provided quicker ball (moreso from lineouts than the ruck) and showed what he can still do when running at full tilt.
The captain’s buckling first half tackle on Lionel Beauxis left the Stade Francais man on his knees for a couple of minutes, drawing wind from sails Beauxis never again fully brandished thereafter.
Only a try from D’Arcy could have electrified the home crowd to an even greater extent and that delightfully proved the case, as the Wexford man’s brawn dragged him across the whitewash for the match-clinching score.
“We couldn’t have asked for a better start against very tough opposition,” said the outstanding O’Driscoll. “And hopefully we can build on that.”
“But let’s not get carried away, we have won one game. We’ll enjoy it for a few hours and then look at Italy.”
That’s just the sort of attitude which could turn a great start to the campaign into a truly great season come the Cardiff finale in March. But for now, roll on Rome next Sunday.