Ireland’s brave title defence falls just short in Pau

Philip Doyle’s side come good in the second half to give the home fans a rare fright at the death


France 19 Ireland 15

France captured the Grand Slam tonight but not before a scare from the most stubborn of defending Six Nations champions.

“We let them bully us in the first half,” said Fiona Coghlan. “We couldn’t allow that happen in the second.”

And so, when Gillian Bourke was driven over the French line just before the hour mark, to make it 19-8, the locals happily applauded Ireland’s consolation try.

It was the first try France had conceded in 2014 but unperturbed they kept unloading their bench.

When the Irish maul walked them 15 metres, after some clever kicking by Nora Stapleton, Bourke was shunted over for her second try.

The inspirational Niamh Briggs’s conversion made it a four-point game and suddenly, with 10 minutes still to play, the natives had gone awfully quiet.

Alas, a dramatic steal was not to be but afterwards coach Philip Doyle was already planning a return to France in August.

“We’d love another crack at them at the World Cup,” said Doyle last night. “The girls found it so hard physically - you saw the pack they have - but you have to believe in these girls. They never know when to quit.”

The opening half hour in the south of France is always about survival.

Coghlan’s women knew what was coming but those opening exchanges must have felt like the beach landing in Saving Private Ryan.

But survive they did.

The first French assault alone had the sardonic male viewers back home flinging mud via text messages as the likes of Jenny Murphy, Larissa Muldoon and Nora Stapleton were targeted for enormous punishment.

Coumba Diallo and Camille Grassineau were somehow held up over the Irish line but the defensive line was fractured and when it was shifted wide winger Marion Lievre raced over.

Only five minutes gone and a grim night in Pau seemed certain.

Ireland desperately needed to land a significant blow. Briggs missed a long range penalty but otherwise the play was constantly in or approaching Ireland’s 22.

There was also the constant threat of Safi N’Diaye, France’s gargantuan number eight, but Ireland made it to half-time only 5-0 down.

“We just told them, ‘You got to treat the ball like a bloody diamond. It’s so valuable,’” said Doyle. “That’s what changed in the second half. We respected the ball a lot more.”

Tactically they got it spot on. The French lineout maul was deemed illegal and defunct.

The game craved an injection of speed but it came from French centres Marjorie Mayans and Shannon Izar before Ireland had settled into the second period.

Alison Miller made a try saving grab on Izar but from the ensuing rumble the huge tight head Elodie Portaries went over.

Agricole’s conversion made it 12-0.

When Heather O’Brien, who had a fine game, was tackled high by Koumiba Djossouvi on 48 minutes Briggs made it 12-3.

Then came the decisive score. Briggs, of all players, got caught near her own line. N’Diaye took it up before Agricole’s nice offload put Izar under the posts.

That seemed to be that. But the champions refused to go down without a fight.

Scoring sequence - 5 mins: M Lievre try, 5-0; 42 mins: E Portaries try, 10-0; S Agricole conv, 12-0; 49 mins: N Briggs pen, 12-3; 51 mins: S Izar try, 17-3; S Agricole conv, 19-3; 58 mins: G Bourke try, 17-8; N Briggs conv, 19-8; 70 mins: G Bourke 19-13; N Briggs conv, 19-15.

France: C Leduff; M Lievre, S Izar, M Mayans, C Grassineau; S Agricole, J Troncy; H Ezanno, G Mignot (capt), E Portaries; M De Nadai, A Koita; K Djossouvi, C Diallo, S N’Diaye.

Replacements: L Arricastre for H Ezanno (47 mins), L Salles for G Mignot (52 mins), J Tremouliere for C Leduff (53 mins), J Duval for E Portaries, L Grand for K Djossouvi, E Poublan for S Izar (all 58 mins), S Rabier for A Koita (60 mins).

Ireland: N Briggs; A Baxter, L Cantwell, J Murphy, A Miller; N Stapleton, L Muldoon; F Coghlan (capt), G Bourke, A Egan; S Spence, M-L Reilly; S Fleming, C Molloy , H O’ Brien.

Replacements: P Fitzpatrick for S Fleming (60 mins), SL Kennedy for A Egan (62 mins), G Davitt for J Murphy (64 mins), H Casey for A Baxter, A Davis for L Muldoon (both 70 mins).

Referee: L Berard (USA).

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