Thursday 19 April 2018

Ireland hang on to give O'Driscoll fitting finale

Title secured after thriller

Ireland's Jonathan Sexton, left, and Brian O'Driscoll celebrates with the trophy following their side's victory
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

If your confidence in an Ireland win in Paris took a dip on Thursday morning when the France team was announced then it was understandable.

After four botched attempts at selection at last Philippe Saint-Andre, their much put-upon coach, seemed to be getting it right. It was at that point that the awful Irish record of one win there since 1972 seemed to occupy as much, if not more, space than how far and how fast our national side have come under Joe Schmidt. It doesn't take much, does it?

At the final whistle in a throbbing Stade de France, when the dust wasn't even close to settling, and man of the match Brian O'Driscoll was walking off the international stage for the last time and with his second Six Nations medal, the scenes of relief in the Irish camp were special. Presented with a lead that had to be retained, under huge pressure, the downside of letting it slip would have been massive.

Were they lucky? Of course. All champions need their fair share, and in the last 10 minutes here they saw replacement Jean Marc Doussain miss a handy kick – on the other hand, so did Johnny Sexton before going off concussed – and then TMO Gareth Simmonds made the right call when a Dave Kearney tackle on Vincent Debaty did enough to force the ball forward to Damien Chouly who finished in the corner. The Clermont player will be beating himself up for the error, for only a few minutes earlier he was winking to teammates after a resurgent France scrum had won what might have been a game-winning penalty for Doussain, only for him to pull it wide.

It was a long 40 seconds while Simmonds made his ruling. Even so, Ireland had to get through a scrum which they turned over before making a choke tackle to save themselves. The locals were still howling at referee Steve Walsh at that point, but the sizeable away contingent were giving it loads in the stands on what was a lovely spring evening that will have looked even better the longer it went on.

O'Driscoll was the emotional hero, and what a relief for someone who has contributed to much that he got to go out in style. For man of the match though you surely would have ended up with a three ball of Andrew Trimble, Paul O'Connell and Jamie Heaslip. All three were immense, but Heaslip's willingness and effectiveness on the carry when Ireland were trying to run the clock down in as positive a manner as possible, was truly remarkable. It will be worth rewinding that sequence and putting a stat on it.

For sure Ireland were really rattled in that endgame. Rob Kearney, whose tremendous counter-attack had created the impetus for Sexton's second try, is normally a go-to man for composure under pressure. Yet as the frantic finish was building he failed to find a touch having fielded and marked a poor punt into the Irish 22. That was a scary moment.

Sure enough, with 77:27 on the clock, and Ireland making a decent fist of keeping the ball, referee Steve Walsh – who was poor – penalised them for holding on inside France's half. If you didn't immediately have flashbacks to November and the wind-up of the New Zealand game then you must have had it skilfully removed from your memory bank.

From there to the finish was simply painful to watch. That it would have a happy ending was as long odds as the biggest winner at Cheltenham last week. And certainly it felt like payday when Walsh's whistle went for the last time.

It was a cracking Test match: fast and fiery and with enough touches of class to keep everyone satisfied, and then spiced with extraordinary suspense at the finish. Less than a half hour earlier you would have thrown down a few bob on the away team winning pulling up, for that was when they put together back-to-back scores.

They had done it in the first half to turn 6-0 lead from two Maxime Machinaud penalties into 12-6 for Ireland, thanks to Sexton's first try – a sustained effort off another good set-piece ending with a lovely offload from Chris Henry for the outhalf to score – followed by a lovely score from Trimble.

Again it came from pre-planning, opening up the opposition on the blind side of their ruck. This time Conor Murray hared through the gap and timed perfectly his pass for Trimble to score by the posts. That proximity to the target was an issue, for Sexton missed two of his first three kicks, and it gave hope to France.

Certainly Saint-Andre's came out steaming, with Mathieu Bastareaud causing palpitations – it was him running into Sexton that eventually forced Ireland's playmaker off, having been knocked out – but technically Ireland looked sharper. Problem was they needed to be nailing every chance, and they weren't.

His miss just before the break of a handy penalty was damaging because Ireland had chased hard right up to the whistle for the extra points, and engineered well the opportunity. A few minutes earlier Brice Dulin had collected a lovely tap back by the excellent Yoann Huget to put France 13-12 up – Machinaud, wouldn't you know, had nailed the extras from the touchline – so the prospect of sending the French to the changing room with nothing to show for their efforts was very attractive.

By then Ireland had won three scrum penalties, and with Nicolas Mas off the field injured, and the line-out functioning well, the vital signs were good. That third quarter was to be Ireland's best period, and the combination of Gordon D'Arcy, Trimble and O'Driscoll in the lead up to Sexton's second try, looked like the work of a team who were very confident about winning. Even more so when a stupid penalty concession at a maul – refereed badly throughout by Walsh – allowed Ireland's outhalf put them two scores ahead.

And how they needed the breathing room, for they were winded by Dimitri Szarzewski managing to connect the ball with post to conclude a long period of pressure in Ireland's 22, just after the hour mark. Machinaud made it a two-point game. When on the final stagger over the line Walsh went upstairs for help, the home crowd were sure the points swing had landed on their side of the fence. Not quite. A poor season for them, with a decent finish in terms of quality. A great season for Ireland with a heart-stopper that, in time, they realise didn't have to be so close.

France: B Dulin; Y Huget, M Bastareaud, G Fickou, M Medard; T Tales, M Machinaud (JM Doussain 66)T Domingo, D Szarzewski (V Debaty 69), N Mas (R Slimani 37), P Pape (capt)(A Flanquart 45), Y Maestri, L Picamoles (S Vahaamahina 67), D Chouly, A Lapandry

Ireland: R Kearney; A Trimble, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy (F McFadden 67), D Kearney; J Sexton (I Madigan 69), C Murray (E Reddan 64); C Healy (J McGrath 71), R Best (S Cronin 71), M Ross (M Moore 64), D Toner, P O'Connell (capt), P O'Mahony (I Henderson 64), J Heaslip, C Henry

Referee: S Walsh (Aus)

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