- 22 Sep 07, 01:38 AM
Paris - From the “scenario catastrophe” of their opening-night faux pas, the cathartic effects of a comfortable and critical victory enveloped France on Friday night.
Given the enormity of what was at stake, the relief of a nation - and perhaps many neutrals who feared for this World Cup’s health without its hosts - was palpable.
Bernard Lapasset, the president of the French Rugby Federation, had described the 'double or quits' clash with Ireland as “the most important in France’s professional rugby history”.
Defeat, as France captain Raphael Ibanez put it, was “unthinkable”, the consequences – for the team, its supporters, sponsors, federation officials, club rugby, the country’s self-esteem, economy even – too unpleasant to contemplate.
In five previous World Cups, the hosts have twice won the tournament (New Zealand in 1987, South Africa in 1995) and twice reached the final (England in 1991, Australia in 2003). Only Wales, in 1991, failed to progress beyond the quarter-finals.
The front page of L’Equipe, France’s national daily sports paper, had declared that the “L’Heure de Verite’ (The Moment of Truth) was at hand.
And conquer they did a demoralised Ireland side for whom World Cup salvation seems a long way off.
They subsided by the same 22-point margin by which France beat them (43-21) at the quarter-final stage four years ago.
And despite the three Triple Crowns in the interim, this comprehensive defeat makes it difficult to argue they have made any great strides on the world stage since, and that their most talented team in living memory will forever remain at least one step removed from greatness.
All is not lost just yet, but scoring one try, let alone four, against Argentina, who have yet to concede one in the tournament, looks a tall order on the evidence of Ireland's opening three matches.
Their supporters did them proud as always, converging on the Stade de France in their thousands and out-cheering and out-singing the locals as the teams were announced and the anthems played.
But once the initial Irish aerial bombardment yielded few gains and the booming boot of Damien Traille kept them at arm’s length, France were clinical in punishing Irish errors and indiscipline.
The hosts concentrated on getting their set-pieces working well, taking few risks – one ill-advised Frederic Michalak sortie from his own 22 aside – and building a lead.
When Ronan O’Gara finally got Ireland on the scoreboad three minutes before half-time, it appeared we might have a game on our hands.
But Jean-Baptiste Elissalde’s fourth penalty before the interval soothed any hint of nerves to make it 12-3, and once France had survived a brief flurry of Irish pressure – and brief rendition of “Fields of Athenry” - on the resumption, the end was swift.
Another Irish indiscretion allowed Elissalde to stretch the advantage before Michalak opened his box of tricks, a delightful chip with the outside of his right boot bouncing kindly for Vincent Clerc to put the outcome beyond doubt.
Bernard Laporte’s face on the stadium’s big screen was a picture, letting out a lengthy “Oooouuuuiiiiiiii” as he punched both fists in delight.
He was at it again 10 minutes later as Clerc’s second try emphasised French superiority, but by that stage any sense of a lingering contest had already elapsed.
The Stade de France relaxed, indulged in a chorus of “La Marseillaise” and chants of “Allez les Bleus” in between huge sighs of relief.
At the final whistle, the French players all gathered in a celebratory huddle, while the crowd sang along contentedly to a popular ditty “On Ira Tous au Paradis” (We’re all going to Paradise) as it bellowed out from the public address system.
‘Paradise’ may yet be a quarter-final against New Zealand in Cardiff, and the prospect of going out of their own World Cup in another country.
The potential price, you might say, for the political and financial machinations that ensured the tournament came to France in the first place.
But when the alternative was shame and national ridicule on the home front, our hosts will settle for that.
Bryn Palmer is the BBC Sport website’s rugby union editor.