O'Driscoll's golden exit on day to savour
FRANCE 20 IRELAND 22
Published 17/03/2014 | 02:30
AS it all came down to the final moments once more, the mind drifted to New Zealand and that November heartbreak.
When Ireland's scrum went against the head and Steve Walsh twitched with the urge to give a penalty, the collective intake of Irish breath almost drowned out the French roar of encouragement.
Afterwards, France lamented captain Pascal Pape's forward pass that rendered Damien Chouly's try a scrum, but they got the ball back anyway and went one more time. Up stepped Iain Henderson and Ian Madigan, the next generation to snuff out Jean-Marc Doussain, before Devin Toner, Chris Henry and Paul O'Connell grabbed Sebastien Vahaamahina and choked their way to the title.
The sound of the referee's whistle brought relief and joy in equal measures for Ireland in Paris. They had survived the killing fields despite everything that had been thrown at them.
An angry French team led by the monumental Mathieu Bastareaud had played brilliantly, given their all and come away with nothing.
After years of hurt at the Stade de France and seasons of decline after the 2009 Grand Slam; after a season when they have come close to history twice and let it slip in one-score games, Ireland had won the tightest of contests in Paris and taken the trophy to boot. It was a day to savour.
The last men standing from the golden generation could enjoy a second crown, but for the vast majority, it was a first taste of international glory to go with their club success.
Unheralded men such as comeback- kid Andrew Trimble and the omnipresent Henry were immense, the Leinster reserves whose worth to the team was questioned last week by Denis Leamy, came on and closed it out. Captain Paul O'Connell led from the front and by example.
It was nerve-shredding stuff as the scrum creaked and wheeled and Doussain sent an eminently kickable penalty wide with 10 minutes left on the clock. Both teams left points out there. Johnny Sexton scored 17, but missed two kickable attempts. Remi Tales sent a drop-goal wide at the end of the first half.
The joy was unconfined at the end as Brian O'Driscoll bowed out with gold around his neck.
"They have had to work so hard and when you work so hard for something and you manage to get over the line... It was close, hard-fought," said Joe Schmidt.
"Over the whole tournament they have demonstrated a progression. To come here and put together the three tries we got ... we kept our nose in front and managed to get over the line."
Before Paris, this had been a season to remember for Ireland for what might have been.
If they had lost another tight game in the closing stages, having left points out on the field, then the inquest would not have been pretty.
The margins at this level are so tight, Ireland were a twitch of the referee's arm from disaster. As the last scrum crumbled, Walsh went to give the penalty that would surely have won it for France, but the ball popped out in blue hands and he demurred.
It was that close and it would have been contentious, but the arm stayed down and Ireland escaped.
They rode their luck, but the visiting team made things happen too.
Down six points after the French came out of the traps like a team possessed after a week of public lashings in the media, Ireland hit back in real style.
Sexton's kicking radar may have been off a little, but there was nothing wrong with his legs as he took the game to France, grabbing Henry's out-the-back offload to step inside Bastareaud and score.
He missed the conversion, but nailed his next attempt as Ireland repeated the trick; this time exploiting a woeful Louis Picamoles knock-on by sending O'Driscoll up the middle off the scrum, before Conor Murray exploited a large gap, drew Maxime Medard and sent Trimble over.
The breathing space wouldn't last, however, as lack of support for Jamie Heaslip at ruck-time allowed France to win the penalty, kick to touch and work a brilliant try.
Remi Tales cross-kicked for Yoann Huget, who beat Rob Kearney in the air to the ball, palmed it down to Brice Dulin and he held off Dave Kearney to score.
With loosehead prop Thomas Domingo on a warning due to Mike Ross's dominance at scrum-time, Ireland still had the upper hand, but Sexton missed a simple-looking chance to give Ireland the half-time lead.
He made up for it in the second half by finishing off a well-worked try he started by spotting an overlap on the right and moving the ball wide to Trimble. Brilliant Dulin defending forced O'Driscoll inside for Medard to stop a fairytale final try for the record scorer, but O'Connell arrived to secure the ball and Murray slipped Sexton the ball to go over untouched.
He nailed the conversion and added a penalty on 50 minutes to make it a two-score game.
But, as in Twickenham and against New Zealand Ireland failed to kick on and appeared to declare their total.
England and the All Blacks managed to reel them in, but France couldn't do it. That they should have will haunt Philippe Saint-Andre and worry Schmidt. Dimitri Szarzewski touched down at the base of the post as the size of the French bench told and Ireland began to creak.
But Doussain missed his penalty as the nerves got to the replacement scrum-half, while Dave Kearney and O'Driscoll's desperate shoot-up forced Pape into his forward pass.
The long wait for Walsh to confirm the obvious just added to the tension.
"I thought there were a few guys tonight who 12 months ago were probably forgotten men," Schmidt said.
"Guys like Andrew Trimble, I thought he had a super game, particularly in the first 50 minutes.
"He put us in the game, he scored a try with a tough enough take when the pass was threaded through two defenders and he almost set Drico up for one as part of the fairytale. But in the end, Johnny got that one.
"Two-try Johnny again, he didn't disappoint with his running game. He had a bit of frustration, especially in the first half, with his kicking and that might have given us a little bit more breathing space, but luckily we had just enough to survive."
Survival was enough.
FRANCE – B Dulin; Y Huget, M Bastareaud, G Fickou (M Mermoz 76), M Medard; R Tales, M Machenaud (JM Doussain 67); T Domingo (V Debaty h-t), D Szarsewski (G Guirado 79), N Mas (R Slimani 37); P Pape (capt), Y Maestri (A Flanquart 53); L Picamoles (S Vahaamahina 66), Alexandre Lapandy (W Lauret 76), D Chouly.
IRELAND – R Kearney; A Trimble, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy (F McFadden 67), D Kearney; J Sexton (I Madigan 68), C Murray (E Reddan 63); C Healy (J McGrath 70), R Best (S Cronin 70), M Ross (M Moore 64); D Toner, P O'Connell (capt); P O'Mahony (I Henderson 64), C Henry, J Heaslip.
Ref – S Walsh (New Zealand)