16 February 2016

By Tadhg Peavoy

The dust has settled on Ireland’s defeat to France in Paris. Just one point collected from four on offer leaves Ireland all but out of the Six Nations title race. Mathematically they are still in the hunt. But results would need to go their way in a multitude of matches. It’s not impossible, but it’s not likely either.

What happened in Paris has been covered across the web, in print and on the airwaves ad nausuem. It wasn’t a pretty win for France, but it was effective. And arresting a five-match winless streak against Ireland was a superb result for newly installed Les Bleus boss Guy Noves.

In the wake of Ireland’s 2015 Six Nations win over the Philippe-Saint-Andre’s incarnation of France, their media dubbed Joe Schmidt a magician for pulling off another stirring victory.

This time, Noves was the magician. Why? One phrase: rope-a-dope. Muhammad Ali’s win over George Foreman in their heavyweight title fight of 1974, entitled Rumble in the Jungle, gave birth to the phrase, which was coined by publicist John Condon. We all know the famous plot that went down in Kinshasa that night.

Ali stuck to the ropes for the opening three rounds, absorbing Foreman’s punches though the ropes, instead of taking the bruiser’s full-on power upright. By the fourth Foreman was ailing and Ali seized his chance, coming off the ropes to land a combination that rocked Foreman;  he did the same numerous times in the fifth.

By the eighth, Ali was dominating all over the canvas. Foreman was there for the taking. And with a serious of rights, a five-punch combo, and a left hook, Foreman was down, and landed with a TKO, despite getting back to his feet after a nine-second count.

The fight is regarded as one of the greatest sporting events of the 20th century, and Ali’s rope-a-dope one of the greatest tactical moves in sporting history. Ali overcame the physically superior specimen of Foreman with guile first, then technique.

Noves’ France achieved their own rope-a-dope on Saturday in Paris. Ireland, a superior side in terms of skill and execution, were afforded large swathes of field position and possession in the opening 52 minutes in Paris, but France countered not with counter-attack, but brute force. They slammed the Irish in the tackle both legally and illegally, and through a poor refereeing performance from Jaco Peyper, were spared any sin-binnings or red cards.

Yoann Maestri should have seen yellow – at least – for a late, late challenge on Johnny Sexton. Les Bleus’ captain Guilhelm Guirado most certainly should have seen yellow for a high and late challenge on Dave Kearney. Both infringements went unpunished.

As Ireland flailed wildly in their attempt to break this rearguard they proceeded to punch themselves out. Jared Payne picked up a dead leg and played on injured for much of the second half. Mike McCarthy left the field of play concussed. Rob Kearney and Conor Murray also both took knocks to the head that arguably impaired their performances. For all their gusto Ireland led just 9-3 as the tie entered its endgame.

And just as Ali did in the eighth against Foreman, France saw their opportunity to strike. For the last 28 minutes of the tie they bludgeoned Ireland, this time in attack, going straight and hard with ball in hand, with power and brawn edging their way up the pitch.

Camped in the Irish 22, they won a scrum, from which they won two penalties. A third and a penalty try would be awarded. Instead of that more obvious path, they went wide right where a poorly positioned Robbie Henshaw allowed France fullback Maxime Medard to scythe past him on the inside shoulder and over the whitewash. Jules Plisson slotted the resulting conversion and France took a 10-9 lead that they would hold to the close.

It was rope-a-dope over 80 minutes at the HQ of French rugby. On Saturday it was regarded as a feat resulting from Irish ineptitude; however, if France are to go on and claim a first Grand Slam since 2010, it will be regarded as a tactical masterstroke.

“Ali, boma ye,” translated as, “Ali, kill him,” cried the Kinshasa natives upon watching The Greatest rip Foreman apart in the Rumble in the Jungle. The brutal nature of French rugby, a tradition long associated with Les Bleus, was channeled once more on Saturday as they scalped Ireland in the French capital. The crowd didn’t have the vision to roar, “France, tue les”. But if they had it would have been most appropriate.