Ireland secure famous victory over France in Cardiff
Rob Kearney and Conor Murray tries set up a maiden World Cup win over Les Bleus
The scoreline takes some believing. So too the performance. To lose their two most important players, their talisman and their leader, and then respond to put France away handsomely, also takes some beating given Ireland’s history at World Cups. The mutual love-in when the players returned moments after the end was entirely justified.
But despite losing first Johnny Sexton at the end of the first quarter and then Paul O’Connell on half-time, no blow rocked this Irish side. Phenomenal, unyielding mental strength and unquenchable spirit, helped by an umbilical link with a raucous Irish crowd which had the Millennium Stadium rocking, ultimately devoured a blunt, one-dimensional France.
The collective, as ever with this Ireland, amounted to more than the sum of the individual parts. And in the face of a ferociously physical French assault, Irish players kept looking for what little daylight there was in the thick blue line, kept clearing out, kept tackling and, in a game where line breaks were like hen’s teeth, managed a couple before drawing strength from an improved scrum in the endgame.
Heroes nonetheless abounded, none more than Ian Madigan, who epitomised this team’s mental strength with the assuredness and daring of his running and kicking game, while Iain Henderson somehow made light of losing O’Connell with his leg-pumping in contact. Others, such as Rory Best and Devin Toner, have rarely played better, the entire back-row rose to the occasion with big, big games, as did Conor Murray and the immense Robbie Henhsaw. But there were no weak links in the chain.
Ireland’s world appeared to fall in before the 25-minute mark when Sexton was tackled hard by Louis Picamoles, and felt the full force of the number eight’s shoulder. Despite the ferocity of the hit, it appears Sexton had suffered a groin injury. Nearing half-time Ireland suffered another body blow, and a huge psychological one, when O’Connell was stretchered off after the end of the first-half with what seemed like a serious hamstring injury.
O’Connell tried to get to his feet, but couldn’t. Given a rousing reception, he managed a one-hand wave through his pain and crushing disappointment as he was stretchered off, but it was a cruel way to see his test career come to an end. Ireland would also lose Peter O’Mahony, who had a towering match, clearing out, poaching, tackling and counter-rucking.
Thierry Dusautoir’s crunching hits and tackle count were reminiscent of his stunning performance against New Zealand in this stadium eight years ago, and France had plenty of oomph, but little ooh la la.
Ireland’s exit strategy focussed mostly on a kick-chase rather than kicking long. The problem was that Brice Dulin and Scott Spedding gathered the first three of them, and in addition to conceding territory, Ireland also began by conceding four of the first five penalties.
Ireland 24 France 9 - match highlights
Happily for the Irish crowd, Frederic Michalak struck the post when shanking his first kick, and Spedding hit the upright from long-range, before Sexton opened the scoring after his little chip led to Mathieu Bastareaud playing the ball from an offside position.
Spedding would cancel out that Sexton penalty, and another one, with long-range kicks, before Madigan spread confidence through his teammates and the Irish support when unerringly making it 9-6. Ireland should have been more ahead when a lovely strike move from off-the-op line-out ball saw Tommy Bowe, another big game player, drift through the French line from Henshaw’s inside pass and draw Spedding but Earls couldn’t hold onto the pass.
Ireland went through many painstaking phases before Henshaw kicked possession away and then, after Spedding kicked downfield, Madigan attempted a risky touch-finder rather than an up-and-under, which went out on the full.
Ireland would pay a hell of a price, if not on the scoreboard. As France attacked off the ensuing line-out in the Irish half, O’Connell’s foot seemed to get caught in the turf as he attempted a poach and was cleared out. Earls redeemed himself to some degree with a try-saving tackle from behind on Spedding, as did Henshaw by lifting the siege when poaching for a turnover penalty on half-time. But the players left the pitch with O’Connell out of the game, the tournament and test rugby.
About the only positive of that grim scenario, was that Ireland had 15 minutes to regroup. They had responded impressively to losing Sexton and even more so now.
With the battle resumed, an injury break in the 48th minute led to the best version yet of ‘The Fields’ heard on this, or any other day. Almost immediately Henshaw stood up Bastareaud and set off. Although the move stalled, from the ensuing scrum Ireland went through the phases before Rob Kearney broke Michalak’s tackle and took Dulin’s to score.
When Dusautoir knocked on, the crowd chanted “Ole, Ole, Ole.” The French could not be heard. Rory Best was pinged for coming in from the side and Sean O’Brien, not for the first time, was penalised for a turnover that could well have been given prior to this tournament.
O’Brien’s response was to pound the turf but, undeterred, make a brilliant turnover at the next ruck. Back came Ireland through the phases, but there was no way through, so Madigan chipped for the increasingly influential Henshaw to gather. But France won the turnover penalty, and after launching Louis Picamoles up the middle, O’Brien was pinged for not rolling away.
A Morgan Parra penalty brought the French to within a score, but Henderson, at the peak of his stirring second-half effort, drove Bernard le Roux back ten metres off a French line-out and when Alexandre Dumoulin crossed in front of the carrier, ‘The Fields’ reverberated around the Millennium once more. It also summed up France’s blunt attacking game.
When Madigan found a huge touch, it felt like a momentum shift, and it was, the final one. Ireland attacked through the phases, O’Brien, Henderson, Toner and Best making yards in contact that they had no right to make. This was as much about desire and seeking relatively softer shoulders as sheer strength. Murray then had the wit to touch the ball against the base of the posts with the well-placed Owens having no need to take recourse to the TMO.
A scrum penalty for the revamped Irish front-row followed. Madigan nailed it from 45 metres. More ‘Oles’. Another Irish scrum penalty. Ireland now bossing it to the backdrop of The Fields. One of the great days.
Scoring sequence: 13 mins Sexton pen 3-0; 16 mins Spedding pen 3-3; 19 mins Sexton pen 6-3; 23 mins Spedding pen 6-6; 29 mnins Madigan pen 9-6; (half-time 9-6); 51 mins R Kearney try 14-6; 64 mins Parra pen 14-9; 72 mins Murray try, Madigan con 21-9; 76 mins Madigan pen 24-9.
France: Scott Spedding (Clermont Auvergne); Noa Nakaitaci (Clermont Auvergne), Mathieu Bastareaud (Toulon), Wesley Fofana (Clermont Auvergne), Brice Dulin (Racing 92); Frederic Michalak (Toulon), Sebastien Tillous-Borde (Toulon); Eddy Ben Arous (Racing 92), Guilhem Guirado (Toulon), Rabah Slimani (Stade Francais), Pascal Pape (Stade Francais), Yoann Maestri (Toulouse), Thierry Dusautoir (Toulouse) (capt), Damien Chouly (Clermont Auvergne), Louis Picamoles (Toulouse). Replacements: Benjamin Kayser (Clermont Auvergne) for Guirado (69 mins), Vincent Debaty (Clermont Auvergne) for Ben Arous (43-48 and 65 mins), Nicolas Mas (Montpellier) for Slimani (63 mins), Alexandre Flanquart (Stade Francais) for Pape (73 mins), Bernard le Roux (Racing 92) for Choully (55 mins), Morgan Parra (Clermont Auvergne) for Tillous-Borde, Remi Tales (Racing 92) for Michalak (55 mins), Alexandre Dumoulin (Racing 92) for Bastareaud.
Ireland:Rob Kearney (UCD/Leinster); Tommy Bowe (Belfast Harlequins/Ulster), Keith Earls (Young Munster/Munster), Robbie Henshaw (Buccaneers/Connacht), Dave Kearney (Lansdowne/Leinster); Jonathan Sexton (St. Mary’s College/Leinster), Conor Murray (Garryowen/Munster); Cian Healy (Clontarf/Leinster), Rory Best (Banbridge/Ulster), Mike Ross (Clontarf/Leinster), Devin Toner (Lansdowne/Leinster), Paul O’Connell (Young Munster) (capt), Peter O’Mahony (Cork Constitution/Munster), Sean O’Brien (UCD/Leinster), Jamie Heaslip (Dublin University/Leinster). Replacements: Ian Madigan (Blackrock College/Leinster) for Sexton (28 mins),
Iain Henderson (Ballynahinch/Ulster) for O’Connell (half=time), Chris Henry (Malone/Ulster) for O’Mahony (55 mins), Jack McGrath (St. Mary’s College/Leinster) for Healy (57 mins), Luke Fitzgerald (Blackrock College/Leinster) for Earls (62 mins), Nathan White (Connacht) for Ross (65 mins), Richardt Strauss (Old Wesley/Leinster) for Best (74 mins), Eoin Reddan (Old Crescent/Leinster) for Murray (75 mins),
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)a