Irish verve and vitality carves out famous win
Vive les Maillots Verts. Ireland ended 28 years of Parisian hurt in the Stade de France yesterday and what made Irish joy all the more complete was that they did it in style, with more than a dash of panache.
So often Irish teams have come to Paris on a wing and a prayer as the philosophy and the playing ability rarely allowed the ball to get to the wings. This was not only the most unusual of Irish results, it was a most un-Irish performance, proving perhaps that this is the best, as well as the most exciting, Irish team in 15 years.
The set-pieces have been better. The scrum creaked, though not enough to cause undue damage (thanks partially to the way Paul Honiss refereed the french in this area), but when it mattered most the Irish scrum held up. Even the line-out malfunctioned on occasion. Most of all, though, Ireland's kicking game was at times quite poor, and virtually every time the ball saw air France benefited.
By contrast, Ireland's running game was often breathtaking and generally pacier and at a higher tempo than France's. Through the pack's mobility, low hard rucking and quick presentation - primarily the unstinting work of Kieron Dawson and Simon Easterby - Peter Stringer whipped the ball out in front of the fearless and fellow young tyros behind him.
O'Gara ran on to the ball and moved his line beautifully - in this regard it was the best of his three games so far. Outside Rob Henderson carried the ball well and worked his socks off. And then there was Brian O'Driscoll. A hat-trick, he was a different class, and crucially good in defence as well as attack.
Denis Hickie was an ideal foil and most of what he did was sheer class. His covering, try-saving tackle on Marc dal Maso was worth its weight in gold, just as much as any of O'Driscoll's tries, and by the end, just like O'Drscoll, his pace and elusiveness had the French backing off.
Yet, for the first 20 minutes the game had elements of the same old scenario, and was comparable with previous Parisian trips and the opening quarter in Twickenham. The French tore into the fray, Ireland were left clutching for breath and tackles, and the first six penalties went France's way.
Any time Ireland got their mits on their ball, they usually kicked it back. Keith Wood's relief that Ireland were only trailing to two Gerald Merceron penalties at this juncture was commonly shared. By then O'Driscoll's tracking defence had forced a forward pass in the try-scoring delivery from Merceron to David Bory, and Hickie had denied the ever-dangerous Emile Ntamack.
Even getting upfield was largely down to O'Driscoll. His big follow-up hit on Philippe Barnat-Salles, after Ntamack countered for the umpteenth time, gave Ireland some relief. O'Driscoll then gave a first sumptuous taste of what was to come when slicing through the French after taking O'Gara's skip-pass from scrum ball. Henderson was in support and though O'Gara missed the angled penalty, the first strains of the Fields of Athenry could be heard.
Once more O'Driscoll made inroads off scrum ball. This time Girvan Dempsey supported on the inside, then Anthony Foley, Hickie and Easterby probed the blindside and Peter Clohessy took it up to the line. From another quick recycle in fourth phase play, O'Driscoll took Malcolm O'Kelly's pass to score under the posts.
O'Gara's conversion put Ireland ahead, but Stringer had to make a try-saving covering tackle on Christophe Laussucq. Abdelatif Benazzi then ran Wood's overcooked throw at the Irish backs and after waves of attacks, Ireland were penalised for offside and Laussucq took a quick tap to score one of those facile close-range tries which blight the game.
The tit-for-tat trend gathered momentum after that, an excellent Irish drive of seven or eight phases ending in Fabien Pelous' bruising tackle denying Dawson in the corner. After that Ireland were forced to defend resolutely until half-time.
On the resumption Merceron tagged on penalties either side of Hickie's try-saving tackle on Dal Maso, O'Gara hit the bar with a 45-metre penalty and Dawson charged down a Merceron dropgoal attempt. But with the French increasingly happy to kick, the force seemed now with Ireland, an impression reinforced by Hickie's run and deft reverse pass for the charging Henderson.
Stampeding like a buffalo, he made inroads off scrum ball with a neat swerve and delayed offload for the supporting O'Driscoll to score under the posts again. O'Gara's conversion made it 19-14.
Yet, following a plethora of substitutions past the hour, the cause seemed almost up when Paddy Johns came around the side of a ruck as Laussucq prepared to feed Merceron for a drop goal. Not so much a professional foul as an amateur one. Merceron's penalty and Johns' sin-binning put unnecessary pressure on Ireland.
Even so, David Humphreys' 40-metre penalty was fair reward for the pack's and the team's increased effort, demonstrated by the ensuing seven-man shove when Stringer spilled the restart. Merceron hit the bar with another drop-goal effort - further evidence of France's dwindling confidence - before he made it 25-17 with another penalty.
Back to 15-a-side then and Ireland were still in it, even more so when Hickie's brilliant arcing run put Ireland on to the front foot. Though Johns was minced when taking the supporting pass, and Stringer was hit in mid-pass, while all else hesitated O'Driscoll pounced, scooping up the ball one-handed, and darting through before rounding Ntamack with not even a hand on him. The brilliant, beautiful cheek of him.
Humphreys' conversion brought the difference to a point, but in their sudden disdain of Les Bleus, the French crowd were paying tribute to O'Driscoll and co. The mood had changed irrevocably and Humphreys' match-winning 45-metre penalty confirmed it. France tried one of their grandstand flourishing finishes, but they were puffing the harder now and Les Verts were swarming all over them until the final whistle.
Cue the celebrations, O'Driscoll being carried shoulder high, the Pogues and U2 and all of that. What a day. It really can't much get better than this.