Ireland face down French with fire and flair

 

Ireland 30 France 21:Ireland ended a run of seven consecutive defeats against France with a character-laden performance at Croke Park. The victory was underpinned by a series of outstanding individual performances, led by number eight Jamie Heaslip who had a towering game. Jerry Flannery, Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and Tommy Bowe were also conspicuously excellent.

The match also marked the return of Gordon D’Arcy to the international arena, his try after coming on as a replacement highlighting a fairytale comeback. France will reflect on an inability to convert chances when having Ireland stretched to breaking point on half a dozen occasions and ultimately it was the home side’s ability to take more opportunities that allowed them to prevail.

Ireland’s patterns were initially ponderous, over subscribing to the box kicking of Tomas O’Leary – the ball was travelling too far with little hope of contesting it in the air - and also too slow in taking ball around the fringes. It allowed France to reclaim possession in comfort and launch their counter-attacking game.

The French also profited from quickly taken throws-in, a lucrative platform which they exploited with customary flair. The Irish line speed chasing those kicks contained too many doglegs and the home side were lucky not to concede more than one try in the opening 40 minutes.

France were able to run back 60 or 70 metres and it took some thumping goal-line defence – Jerry Flannery’s tackle early-on saved a certain try – as Ireland extricated themselves from potentially calamitous situations.

French scrumhalf Sebastien Tillous-Borde’s erratic and nervy distribution facilitated Ireland in their scrambling defence at times. Ronan O’Gara’s early penalty gave Ireland an ideal start but the French served notice on 14 minutes with a wonderful sweeping move that exploited the full width of the pitch.

Florian Fritz bounced O’Gara to make the initial bust, Maxime Medard’s chip and Fulgence Quedraogo hand’s kept the move alive and when the ball was swept the far touchline, Sebastien Chabal regathered a bouncing ball, and Imanol Harinordoquy crossed in the corner. Lionel Beauxis posted a superb conversion from the touchline.

O’Gara added a second penalty to reduce the deficit to 7-6, a rare respite at a time when the French patterns were threatening further tries. Ireland survived – it took a superb cover tackle by the excellent Tommy Bowe to stop a thundering Chabal as he surged into the Irish 22 – and then in the 33rd minute the home side demonstrated the quality this side possesses.

Rob Kearney – his command of the restarts was wonderful – made the initial half-break, Bowe surged through a tackle and then Paul O’Connell and the excellent Jerry Flannery offloaded to Jamie Heaslip.

Ireland’s number eight chose a brilliant line initially and then turned Clement Poitrenaud before powering through two tackles to cross for a try. It was no more than the Leinster player deserved as his ball carrying had been hugely effective up to that point, making significant yardage.

O’Gara added the conversion but a Beauxis drop goal on the stroke of half-time would have curbed some of the enthusiasm in the Irish dressing room. The French outhalf was a central figure again two minutes after the restart but this time in a negative way for his team. Brian O’Driscoll handed him off, raced into the French 22 and glided inside the covering Julien Malzieu for a fine individual try.

O’Gara converted and at 20-10 Ireland needed a modicum of control, taking some of the intensity out of the game. Instead they reverted to the flawed kicking game and it would cost them dearly as France turned two aimless and poorly directed Irish kicks into eight points; a try for Medard following Beauxis’s clever chip and the outhalf then added a smartly taken drop goal. At 20-18 the French had rediscovered their brio and Ireland were struggling to cope with the pace.

O’Gara missed his second penalty, an ominous portent, but the home team showed their character led by O’Driscoll, whose clever kick pushed France into their own 22. O’Connell won a lineout, the Irish forwards went through four rucks and from the fifth Gordon D’Arcy – on for the injured Paddy Wallace – showed tremendous leg drive to burrow past two tacklers from close range. O’Gara converted and at 27-18 the key question was whether Ireland would retain the courage to keep playing rugby. France were stunned by the latest body blow and with the home side increasing the pressure the visitors started to make unforced errors.

Beauxis kicked a penalty with five minutes left but then replacement wing Cedric Heymans was penalised for not releasing from the restart – Heaslip forced the mistake – and O’Gara made no mistake from close range.

Scoring sequence.

2 mins: O’Gara penalty, 3-0; 14: Harinordoquy try, Beauxis conversion, 3-7; 16: O’Gara penalty, 6-7; 33: Heaslip try, O’Gara conversion, 13-7; 40: Beauxis drop goal, 13-10. Half-time: 13-10. 42: O’Driscoll try, O’Gara conversion, 20-10; 49: Medard try, 20-15; 53: Beauxis drop goal, 20-18; 66: D’Arcy try, O’Gara conversion, 27-18; 75: Beauxis penalty, 27-21; 77: O’Gara penalty, 30-21.

Ireland: R Kearney (Leinster); T Bowe (Ospreys), B O’Driscoll (Leinster, capt), P Wallace, (Ulster), L Fitzgerald (Leinster); R O’Gara (Munster), T O’Leary (Munster); M Horan (Munster), J Flannery (Munster), J Hayes (Munster); P O’Connell (Munster), D O’Callaghan (Munster); S Ferris (Ulster), D Wallace (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster). Replacements: G D’Arcy (Leinster) for P Wallace 28-35 and 61mins; R Best (Ulster) for Flannery 48 mins; D Leamy (Munster) for Ferris 72 mins; G Murphy (Leicester) for Kearney 75 mins.

France: C Poitrenaud (Toulouse); M Medard (Toulouse), F Fritz (Toulouse), Y Jauzion (Toulouse), J Malzieu (Clermont Auvergne); L Beauxis (Stade Francais), S Tillous-Borde (Castres); L Faure (Sale), D Szarzewski (Stade Francais), B Lecouls (Toulouse); S Chabal (Sale), L Nallet (Castres, capt); T Dusautoir (Toulouse), F Quedraogo (Montpellier), I Harinordoquy (Biarritz). Replacements: N Mas (Perpignan) for Lecouls (h-time); B Kaysar (Leicester) for Szarzewski 58 mins; M Parra (Bourgoin) for Tillous-Borde 67 mins; R Millo-Chlusky (Toulouse) for Chabal 61 mins; L Picamoles (Montpellier) for Harinordoquy 70 mins; C Heymans (Toulouse) for Poitrenaud 73 mins; B Baby (Clermont Auvergne) for Fritz 78 mins.

Referee: N Owens (Wales)