We’ve never had it so good. If we weren’t sure what to expect from the top two sides in the world, the rugby gods did. Drunk on elixir, they had lobbed the constituent parts into their oval cup and smiled at the heady concoction: a pinch of Dupont and Penaud; a smidgen of Keenan and Lowe; Irish cohesiveness stirred in with French nonchalance and flair. Not that this potion was about ingredients, more the combination. Not so much the players as the way they play together, or against each other. The love between the lovers; the poetry between the lines.
To call this an extraordinary game of rugby does not do it justice. To call out individuals or individual moments of skill also seems unfair. For every threaded offload or outrageous elusive step, for every drop of magic, there appeared, moments later, to be one better, more spectacular. Everywhere you looked players egged each other on. Bealham to Keenan, Flament to Dumortier. One player’s tucks and pikes seemed to impel the next to greater heights. Up we all climbed.
Referee Barnes tried to stay with us. At such altitude, perhaps it is only fair to expect missed detail. Lowe’s toe was countered by Atonio’s shoulder. Both decisions could have been other than that dished out. You couldn’t help but think everyone was getting a little carried away.
The replacements seemed equal to the task. Anyone hoping for a drop in intensity would be left wanting. Lesser teams would have relented, but you feel that everyone in green and blue had been spoiling for this fight for more than a year. Even twelve months back, this game was the one they wanted.
So how to resolve such an occasion? With every sports star’s greatest friend: patience. For all the previous alacrity of thought and action, such contests need you to harness time. A godly task that only true greatness demands. Ireland stretched the phases and started to remove the oxygen from French lungs. In the nineteenth phase, as far as they’d gone all game, Caelan Doris wrestled his mighty arms free and fired a pass as sure as Apollo’s arrow into Garry Ringrose’s waiting grasp. Blue shirts converged but the hundreds of tackles already spent meant the cover fell away. Patience buys you fatigue. And every mortal, any mortal, will tire if you stay the course for long enough. It was the outside centre’s score but constructed by many hands, many heads, many days out on the practice paddock.
This was a vital step in a journey that Andy Farrell’s men are taking: each step reverberating all the way back to Twickenham. An Englishman abroad leading a charge and charges, of which the RFU can only dream: centrally contracted talent performing world-beating rugby. Anyone needing retribution for how the governing body has overseen such a sickly time in English rugby must have enjoyed the irony of Lancastrian tones extolling the virtues of his emerald squad at full-time. ‘Right good’, to be sure.
But France at home is not the same as France away. And a bateau south in the Autumn will bring the greatest prize into view. But for now, hold the future at the door. Today is about what we know is true: One over two, green over blue. You cannot help but smile; a match bettered by very few.