Sunday 22 April 2018

Decade on from the game that changed everything

A young Brian O'Driscoll is carried from the field Photo: Getty Images
A young Brian O'Driscoll is carried from the field Photo: Getty Images
Andy Ward celebrates the victory over France in Paris with David Humphreys
David Humphreys who kicks a crucial penalty late in the game

DAVID KELLY

On the morning of March 19, 2000, France presumed there was only one star in Irish rugby. According to the match programme, at least, Keith Wood was he. How wrong. Several hours later, a new star would be born.

Paris in the spring had never wrought so much romance for the Irish.

Fast forward a bit later, to the self-same Wood -- standing astride the green sward where, for the first time in 28 years, Irish blood, sweat and tears were at last spilled for due reward -- regaling the Irish hordes who are, disbelievingly, singing 'The Fields' in true celebration.

"Très content!" roars Wood into a French TV microphone. "Très fatigué! Up Ireland!"

sanctity

He offers up an acclamatory Clare shout and makes for the sanctity of a rare and wondrous place -- a victorious away dressing room in Paris. Inside, grizzled veterans like the Claw and Gaillimh are almost weeping; fearless kids like Brian O'Driscoll, the day's comic strip hero, can barely conceive the magnitude of the event.

O'Driscoll walks down the corridor and gestures to David Humphreys, the late tactical substitution for Ronan O'Gara. "He kicked the winning points, boys," smiles the kid. "Talk to him."

Humphreys, whose winning penalty atoned for the narrow miss which had cost Ireland a victory in Dublin a year before, chuckles at the insouciance of youth. This was the kid's day.

"I was a child," O'Driscoll confirmed on the eve of his last trip to Paris in 2008.

"I remember the jersey was about four sizes too big for me. There was a lot of naivete for me. I didn't realise how big the occasion was, how big the win was. That was probably a good thing that it happened that way."

Rob Henderson, O'Driscoll's lesser-known partner, would frank himself as a contender to partner his younger gun-slinger on the following year's Lions tour. However, Paris, not Australia, remains Henderson's career highlight to this day.

"It obviously helped that the fellah beside me scored three tries," is Hendo's typically wry response.

bravado

For all the flash and bravado of O'Driscoll's seminal display, manager Donal Lenihan took time to recall a seven-man scrum after Paddy Johns' sin-binning, with Anthony Foley "learning something off the aul fellah" as Ireland disrupted the vaunted French pack.

The day flashes by as if a blur. France blitz the opening quarter, have a David Bory try disallowed after touch judge Jim Fleming rules Cedric Desbrosse's pass marginally forward; still, they cruise to 6-0, barely reflective of their violent but controlled aggression.

"That 20 minutes was something else," recalls Denis Hickie, whose impressive display in the two-point defeat in Paris two years earlier clearly disinhibited the St Mary's College flyer.

"It was a bit like a boxing match. They were trying to pummel us in the early stages but we managed to stay on our feet.

"We were still standing. And it wasn't that we were just still standing that shocked them. We started attacking them too."

The Irish brains trust of Eddie O'Sullivan and Warren Gatland were in their honeymoon period; the former's game-plan imbued the side with confidence.

Everything they tried, it seemed, came off for them. O'Driscoll started and finished his first try, in the 23rd minute, and it was the best team effort.

It came after several phases of play, first down the short side, with forwards and backs interlinking wondrously.

Foley made the initial surge towards the touchline, which allowed Ireland to switch in-field; Clohessy almost made the line before Malcolm O'Kelly's sweet pass sent in the centre from close range, before he unveiled that obtuse hand signal to his friends back home.

Christophe Laussucq struck back from a quick penalty as Irish full-back Girvan Dempsey scrapped with his opposite number Emile N'tamack; Fabien Pelous poleaxes Wood and with a monster penalty from Gerard Merceron, France are again cruising as the second-half begins.

Then a poor garryowen is collected by N'tamack and the gliding maestro scythes through the cover, releasing the barrelling Abdul Benazzi who, spotting a chasing Hickie, sets hooker Marc Dal Maso free.

"Benazzi cleverly nudged me so I had to go on a wider arc than I wanted to," remembers Hickie.

He would have to discard his memory of the trademark tackle as he came out of nowhere to prevent the certain score.

"If I'd tackled him correctly, I would have just helped him over the line. N'tamack probably should have been stopped in the first place. And I could have taken ball and Benazzi but I was back-pedalling a tad. Thankfully, I just did enough."

France were still in control, though, until O'Driscoll's 57th-minute intervention; Henderson's sublime burst allowing the support runner on his shoulder the perfect angle to steam home. 14-19.

As Hickie returned after a 10-minute breather -- "after getting a kick in the head, mind" -- Gatland brought on Paddy Johns for Mick Galwey. Minutes later, Johns was binned for foolishly obstructing Laussucq. 14-22.

"What we didn't say about him on the bench," laughs Galwey. "Lenihan especially. But sure, we still disrupted their scrum. We went after them in the set-piece that day. We had to harrass them physically."

A Humphreys penalty. 17-22. A Merceron penalty. 17-25.

Six minutes left. Peter Stringer is burgled illegally. Paul Honiss plays advantage. The ball breaks free. So too O'Driscoll. From beyond the 22 he races, from beneath the posts he salutes.

glorious

The conversion a formality from Humphreys, his winning penalty less so. The final whistle a glorious release.

Somewhere on a Dublin golf course, Barry McGann, a survivor from Ireland's only other victory since the war, is counselled for opinion. "That's us f****d now," he said. "We can't talk about '72 anymore!"

A new kid is in town. A new era.

Later that night, Geraldine O'Driscoll knows that all has changed. "She used to be Frank O'Driscoll's husband," says a friendly wag. "Now she's Brian O'Driscoll's mother."

Irish rugby would change too during a glorious decade. Not, however, its rugby fortunes in Paris.

FRANCE -- N'tamack, Bernat-Salles, Desbrosse, Glas, Bory, Merceron, Laussucq, Califano, Dal Maso, Tournaire, Pelous, Brouzet, Costes, Benazzi, T Lievremont. Subs: Mallier for Benazzi 59. Belot for Bouzet 69. De Villiers for Tournaire 69. Ibanez for Dal Maso 60.

IRELAND -- Dempsey, Maggs, O'Driscoll, Henderson, Hickie, O'Gara, Stringer, Clohessy, Wood, Hayes, Galwey, O'Kelly, S Easterby, Dawson, Foley. Subs: Humphreys for O'Gara 62. Ward for Dawson 55. Johns for Galwey 55.

REF -- Paul Honnis (New Zealand).

Irish Independent

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