Knock-on effects let France off the hook
SO, the Grand Slam is gone. Now it is a question of Ireland embracing that reality and turning it into a positive over their remaining Six Nations outings.
And it can be done. The consistent message has been that Declan Kidney and his squad were not looking beyond this tournament and they would worry about the World Cup afterwards. There is still a championship to be won, of course, but the imperative at this point is to build on the plus points from this rip-roaring, gut-wrenching encounter and get to work on eradicating the errors that cost them victory.
Any player will tell you that it is preferable to be on the end of hammering than come within inches of a famous victory and be denied just as it is in your grasp.
And that is specifically what happened as Ireland launched a wonderful last-ditch drive for which took them from their own 22 to the French line. Keith Earls took off down the left and stroked through a clever kick that Maxime Medard failed to deal with and when he was gobbled up by the feral Irish chasers a try looked inevitable only for substitute Sean Cronin, just on for Rory Best, to knock on the ball.
It was one of a host of similar unforced errors as Ireland carried on from Rome in terms of shooting themselves in the foot with their mistakes. However, when Ireland were good they were very, very good -- as their three tries testify -- and in terms of intensity and commitment to the cause, this performance was at the level Ireland need to hit at the World Cup.
Mike Ross had a big game at the scrum forcing Thomas Domingo off the park not long after half-time, Sean O'Brien was everywhere, repeatedly surging onto the ball and swatting away attempted tackles while making his own and sweeping back impressively when France went wide.
David Wallace was not far behind him and the pack as a whole fronted up to the physical challenge of the French. There are issues to address in the two weeks before Scotland, the lack of a tail option in the line-out is becoming a major problem and contributed to three lost throws, while they will also look at the concession of nine penalties.
Perhaps the biggest area to address is selection at half-back. Tomas O'Leary went into the game under an injury cloud and struggled for the second week in succession, although he did brilliantly in the build-up to and execution of his try, while Ronan O'Gara simply looks too good to leave out.
There are also tactical issues to address, which are linked to the half-back conundrum, as the evidence once again pointed towards more of a territory game.
To be discussed -- once the hangover from this pulsating experience has abated. After the stodgy November fare, this felt like a proper Lansdowne Road occasion and it was a spectacular Irish opening. From Jonathan Sexton's kick-off, France were on the back foot and the Irish came at them in waves, their Leinster midfield using their trademark wrap-around move to good effect. It culminated in Gordon D'Arcy sending Luke Fitzgerald screaming down the left for a try which was correctly ruled out for a forward shovel pass.
No matter. The French foolishly ran the scrum ball and Fergus McFadden did superbly to pounce for the turnover and then worm his way over for the try several phases later, with Sexton adding the points for 7-0 after four minutes.
Ireland kept the pressure on, forcing another turnover and it was only when O'Leary knocked on that France got a foothold in the game and worked their way into the Irish half, with Morgan Parra making it 7-3 after Wallace held on in the tackle.
Another knock on, by McFadden, stymied another threatening loop move but from the scrum, Ross put the heat on Domingo, Dave Pearson gave the penalty and Sexton pushed Ireland out to 10-3 with a quarter of the game gone.
Basic errors continued to haunt Ireland and after Cian Healy won a superb ruck turnover, a poor pass put McFadden under pressure with Parra slotting the resultant penalty for 10-6.
France began to crank up the gears; good ball off the back of the line-out from Imanol Harinordoquy was spun wide with Yoann Huget hurtling past Keith Earls only for O'Brien to sweep back for the tackle. But France kept coming and soon Parra was banging over another penalty after an O'Leary error and Ireland, for all their brio, were clinging to a one-point lead.
O'Leary's unhappy afternoon continued and a kick out on the full allowed the visitors to launch another attack from slick line-out ball, and another Parra penalty from 45 metres pushed them into the lead for the first time with little over 10 minutes left in the half.
France were having joy down the right but butchered a try when Clement Poitrenaud misjudged his kick, even though O'Brien, creating a stir in the crowd with every involvement, was again on hand to cover. The mistakes kept coming, a spill from Fitzgerald was followed by a botched line-out, but Pearson was beginning to even up the penalty count and Ireland pushed deep into French territory.
Suddenly O'Leary exploded into life, racing onto good ball from Donncha O'Callaghan at the tail and then using his strength to barrel over for the try, courtesy of the TMO. Sexton fluffed the convert but Ireland had the psychological boost of a 15-12 half-time lead which, given the error count, was no mean achievement.
The French were leaving acres of space at the back but Ireland were not keen to kick into it and, on the resumption, poor kicking out of hand handed the impetus to the visitors. They were looking for a quick score but the Irish tackles kept going on and Francois Trinh-Duc was reduced to an unconvincing drop-goal attempt which predictably failed.
Parra showed his out-half how with another 45-metre howitzer to level at 15-15 as the game entered its critical phase with half an hour left.
Then came the crack. Aurelien Rougerie was on fire in the centre, using his 6' 4'' frame to challenge for high balls and imposing himself on proceedings in all facets of play. He tore onto scrum ball and bust through D'Arcy's tackle and once the incision was made, Medard's try was a formality, substitute Dimitri Yachvili converting to make it 22-15.
France had 68pc of second-half possession with 20 minutes gone and Ireland's penalty count began to rise again, Yachvili missing a straightforward effort but atoning shortly afterwards from the wide right for a 25-15 advantage with 17 minutes left on the clock.
O'Gara was on at this stage to attempt a Houdini act altogether more challenging than the one he pulled off in Rome and, finally, we had ball kicked deep into space. When Ross snaffled the line-out, Ireland hammered away for 25 phases before O'Gara's attempted thread through bounced up for Wallace who put Jamie Heaslip over in the corner, brilliantly converted by O'Gara off the upright for 25-22.
France went into lockdown mode, messing around at the scrum, recycling slowly and running down the clock. Then came the Irish length-of-the-pitch, guts-and-glory effort.
Victory would have been massive in World Cup year, the knock-on effects of letting this one behind could be far-reaching and Murrayfield now assumes massive significance as a means of injecting confidence into this side. Three tries to one against France is pretty impressive -- if they could hold onto the ball, Kidney would have one hell of a team.
IRELAND -- L Fitzgerald; F McFadden, B O'Driscoll (capt), G D'Arcy, K Earls; J Sexton (R O'Gara 62), T O'Leary (E Reddan 68); C Healy (T Court 56), R Best (S Cronin 75), M Ross; D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell (L Cullen 79); S O'Brien, D Wallace, J Heaslip.
FRANCE -- C Poitrenaud; Y Huget, A Rougerie, D Traille (Y Jauzion 72), M Medard; F Trinh-Duc, M Parra (D Yachvili 53); T Domingo (S Marconnet 50), W Servat, N Mas; J Pierre (J Thion 70, L Nallet; T Dusatoir, J Bonnaire (S Chabal 53), I Harinordoquy.
REF -- D Pearson (England)