Heroic Ireland see off France, but victory comes at a cost
Ireland 24 France 9
In the space of 12 minutes in Cardiff, Ireland’s World Cup campaign went from a ball with plenty of air in it to something that badly needed pumping. First Johnny Sexton, and then, in the last play of the half, Paul O’Connell, were removed from the scene for good.
If you had hired a French sniper to take out two key figures then he would have been charging top whack to get that pair.
As the teams went off Ireland were leading 9-6, but it would have been hard to find anyone in the massive Irish contingent among the 72,163 crowd who felt good about what was coming down the track in the second half. And yet at the end of that period there was more daylight between the teams than anyone would have forecast. That it was Ireland well out in front was remarkable.
Argentina, the quarter-final opponents here on Sunday, will have watched with a mixture of satisfaction and trepidation. They’ll be relieved at the casualty count, which started with Sexton’s adductor muscle - he hopes to be fit for Sunday - and then ran through O’Connell’s hamstring, which is likely to be to be high grade tear, Peter O’Mahony (ankle or knee) and Keith Earls. And they will be worried that opponents, against whom they have such a torrid World Cup history, have a well of commitment as deep as anything else left in this competition.
“The biggest attraction for us in playing Argentina was the seven day turnaround,” Joe Schmidt said. “I had a very good look at their win in Durban and to put the South Africans away like that was a major performance. They have cruised through their group.”
It’s hard to think of another Test match in the modern era where an Ireland side coped with such adversity and delivered a huge result. And it’s impossible to recall an example either of where Irish supporters played such a part in getting their team over the line.
“Many times I’ve been here – and flashbacks of playing the Grand Slam game here – the crowd out there surpassed all that,” said Jamie Heaslip, who took over the captaincy when O’Connell went off. “It was unbelievable. They were unbelievable. I can’t emphasise enough, both sets of fans were a credit to the game.”
Squeezing into the lift to get down from the gods in the Millennium, minutes after the final whistle, a Welsh colleague remarked that he had never heard noise quite like the explosion that greeted Rob Kearney’s try on 50 minutes. It is a great stadium, not always graced, naturally enough, with great games. But this was up there with anything that has gone before. Genuinely epic stuff.
It was brutal to the point where after each collision you were back-tracking to check for survivors. And for much of the contest, Ireland didn’t look like they were winning too many of those battles. It’s hard in rugby to make progress if you are battling for parity in the physical stakes, and certainly for much of the first half the bigger French team looked happier with those outcomes.
By the end however it was Ireland who were running down the clock, getting through phases easily enough before bringing down the curtain on a 15 point winning margin. In the circumstances there was an orderly queue for man of the match: Robbie Henshaw was outstanding in the second half, as was Conor Murray when Sexton and O’Connell had gone off. So too Devin Toner, and O’Mahony, and both Jack McGrath and the irrepressible Iain Henderson did really well when they came off the bench.
The pressure on Ian Madigan when he came on for Sexton was enormous, but he coped with it brilliantly. Bar two mistakes he got through in flying form and managed to look like he was enjoying it all.
The award went to Sean O’Brien, who was immense in his carrying and breakdown work, though he may have a case to answer for an off the ball incident where he slapped Pascal Pape in the stomach.
The start for Ireland wasn’t great: three penalties conceded in the opening 10 minutes, two of them kickable. Freddie Michalak, 33 this week and seemingly a changed man in his outlook on the game - a direct result of having come under the influence of Jonny Wilkinson in Toulon – missed both, and if you were looking for good portents for Ireland then those misses fitted the bill, as much for the fact that it might wreck his head as much as the six points that had been left behind.
Had he been handed another one soon after then it might have induced meltdown, but instead Scott Spedding stood up to whack over two huge kicks from halfway. His second one tied the game at 6-6 after Sexton had nailed his two opportunities.
The pattern that had developed wasn’t filling the Irish fans with confidence however. France’s defence never seemed to be short of numbers, and metres gained for Ireland were coming at the cost of huge energy.
The two key moments in the half featured Keith Earls – one going forward, the other in reverse. It’s not often in a game as tight as this that you get a try-scoring chance almost choreographed, and in slow motion. It was a clever tool used by Ireland to open the French defence in the first place, and put Tommy Bowe and Earls through in a two versus one with Spedding.
Maybe he overthought it – whatever, Earls spilled it, and the covering Brice Dulin didn’t have to make a tackle. The other Earls moment was one the centre will be happier replaying: a try-saving tackle on Spedding when late in the half France had carved out an overlap on Ireland’s left flank. He carried very well in the second half, despite struggling for a while with injury before eventually going off.
It was when Ireland played direct rugby in the 10 metre channels either side of the breakdown that they made most ground. The build up to Rob Kearney’s try on 50 minutes really rattled France, starting with Henshaw standing up Mathieu Bastareaud. That put them out to 14-6, but Morgan Parra pulled back three soon after when O’Brien was done for not rolling away.
The game was on a knife edge until the 72nd minute, when after great pressure close in, Murray dotted the ball against the post, and Madigan’s conversion put Ireland 21-9 ahead, and France in real trouble. They seemed to grasp that fact for themselves, and began to look desperate.
“After the 60th minute, we were dominated especially at the ruck,” coach Phillipe Saint-Andre said afterwards. “We couldn’t get the ball. It seemed we were always defending.”
Another Madigan penalty, with eight minutes left, made it safe. And how the fans lapped that up. If you haven’t booked your passage for Cardiff next Sunday, you’ll need to be creative.
Ireland: R Kearney; T Bowe, K Earls L Fitzgerald 62), R Henshaw, D Kearney; J Sexton (I Madigan 28), C Murray; C Healy (J McGrath 57), R Best (R Strauss 74), M Ross (N White 65), D Toner, P O’Connell (I Henderson ht), P O’Mahony (C Henry 55), J Heaslip, S O’Brien
France: S Spedding; N Nakaitaci, M Bastareaud (A Dumoulin 63), W Fofana, B Dulin; F Michalak (R Tales 55), S Tillous-Borde (M Parra 55); E Ben Arous (V Debaty 65), G Guirado (B Kayser 59), R Slimani (N Mas 58), P Pape, Y Maestri, T Dusatoir (capt), L Picamloes, D Chouly (B le Roux 55)
Referee: N Owens (Wales)