By Julien Pretot
PARIS (Reuters) - France players recently said they could compete with the elite of world rugby but after a masterclass at the hands of Ireland in the Six Nations, they admitted to having dropped too far down with the World Cup looming.
Les Bleus were nowhere to be found in a disastrous first half that saw Ireland open a 19-0 lead and two late tries by Yoann Huget and Camille Chat were just a fig leaf on Sunday.
"All their top players had come off, they had stopped playing," flanker Arthur Iturria said after the 26-14 defeat - France's 11th in 15 tests - at the Aviva stadium.
"It's useless to say that we are not far from these teams. We will not win against them by playing the rugby we've been playing."
France were completely dominated in possession and territory and they barely held the ball in the opening half and like their 44-8 defeat against England at Twickenham, they saw their weaknesses exposed.
"Clearly, today, we don't have what it takes (to compete with the best," said lock Felix Lambey.
"We were trapped in our own half. Personally I did not touch the ball, just like everyone in the team. We were like 'let's not concede a try', never like 'we're going to score points'."
"It was a weird feeling. It's like we could not get out of our own half,'" said centre Gael Fickou.
Captain Guilhem Guirado added: "They gave us a lesson on how to keep the ball, it was impossible to steal it from them."
With only six months before the start of the World Cup, France, who beat Scotland 27-10 after the England loss, are eighth in the world rankings.
In the rare moments France had possession against Ireland, they looked unable to put speed into the game, possibly paying the price of years of tinkering with their halfback pair.
Scrumhalf Antoine Dupont and flyhalf Romain Ntamack started for the second consecutive game but they formed coach Jacques Brunel's seventh pair in 15 games since he took over from Guy Noves in December 2017.
Brunel, however, said he is searching for consistency.
"I am not worried. I think my team can rival with all the teams in the Six Nations," Brunel said. "That's that we can take from this game: we can compete."
France next face Italy in Rome with their opponents sitting in 14th place in the world rankings.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)