DESPITE the injury concerns, Sunday in Cardiff turned out to be one of those great days for Irish rugby. In time, we will surely smile nostalgically upon Ireland’s 24-9 win over France and perhaps even shed a tear of delight.
From the outset of this World Cup, France was to be the first serious test of our tournament aspirations and Ireland were justly triumphant after what turned out to be a somewhat hostile contest.
In hindsight, this game was won and lost at the breakdown. For the opening half, both sides tested their wares against one another with unyielding ferocity and after the break; it seemed a case of who would blink first.
Throughout the second-half, the men wearing green didn’t take a backward step or even dare to pause for a second breath and eventually, through toil and will, they wrestled their Gallic opponents into submission.
From an Irish perspective, it was a joy to behold, and the win sets up a quarter-final meeting with Argentina in Cardiff on Sunday, while the French must now face tournament favourites New Zealand.
By the end, the largely Irish crowd packed into the Millennium Stadium bordered on frenzy, only for the final whistle to release them into a joyful ecstasy.
The 15-point winning margin held true to the events that had taken place between the chalk lines and Ireland had come through a battle that had severely tested their playing resources.
Johnny Sexton, Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony all left the field through injury during the struggle and afterwards, the Irish dressing room looked more like a hospital for victims of combat.
Although it remains to be seen what toll Ireland will have paid to take the seemingly easier path to the semi-finals, it was a game to savour for the Irish supporters throughout the world.
The Irish mindset of sheer bloody-mindedness was shown in the very first minute when Peter O’Mahony put a fierce tackle on French scrum-half Sebastien Tillous-Borde after the ball slipped out of a ruck. It certainly was to be a marker of what was to come for the next 80 minutes.
In the opening 10 minutes, Ireland’s game-plan of holding onto the ball became clear as they turned down chances to kick to touch from inside their own half. It was a risky strategy as during this period, France garnered two shots at goals from penalties. However, a poor kick from close range by Freddie Michalak and an attempt from full-back Scott Spedding that struck the post kept the scoreboard untouched.
This changed in the 13th minute when Johnny Sexton kicked Ireland into a 3-0 lead from left of the 10 metre line after Mathieu Bastareaud was judged to have gathered the ball from an offside position.
Three minutes later the scores were tied when Spedding’s second kick from long range sailed through the posts after Cian Healy was pinged for holding on.
The sides again swapped points when Sexton punished France for not rolling away from the breakdown, before Spedding levelled matters from inside his own half, after O’Mahony was called for a high tackle.
By this stage the battle of the breakdown was both thunderous and vicious, with O’Mahony, Best and O’Brien of Ireland fighting tooth and nail for supremacy with Thierry Dusautoir and Louis Picamoles of France.
A massive hit by the French number eight saw Sexton go down during a frantic passage of play which ended when O’Brien stopped an overlap of French runners on Ireland’s left flank with a vital tackle.
Sexton left the field and was replaced by Ian Madigan, who kicked Ireland into a three-point lead once again after French lock Pascal Pape tackled Tommy Bowe without the ball.
On 30 minutes, Ireland should have extended their lead with a try when a short Jamie Heaslip pass from an Irish set-piece play saw Bowe slice through the French cover. With Keith Earls at his shoulder, a two-on-one looked destined to end in a score but a knock from Earls saw the chance go a begging.
During the final play of the half, Ireland’s World Cup ambitions took a gut-wrenching blow when captain O’Connell was stretched off the field with an apparent hamstring pull.
Ulster lock Iain Henderson took to the field for the second period in O'Connell's place. Surprisingly omitted from the starting line-up in many peoples’ estimation, he came on and had a major impact.
In the fourth minute of the second-half, Henderson won a French line-out in the Irish ‘22 and the ball was spread wide to Earls and Dave Kearney, who moved Ireland back into the French half. When Ireland regained possession in French territory, they made it count this time.
Robbie Henshaw made a terrific break through the French defensive line and fed the ball onto Tommy Bowe, who in turn gave a nice offload to Rob Kearney along the right wing. The Leinster full back did well to stay in play and Ireland forced a scrum, five metres from the French line.
Before the scrum, the Irish crowd whipped up the atmosphere and it felt like an important moment in the game.
When Ireland attacked, Henshaw fed Bowe back inside as Ireland went up to the French line. O’Brien, O’Mahony and Healy picked and charged at the line, before Murray switched the play to Rob Kearney on the narrow side and the full-back powered his way over for the opening try of the contest.
For the next 10 minutes Ireland had France pegged inside their own half. The second-half French tackle count was nearing three times that of Ireland, such was Ireland’s dominance during this period.
On 55 minutes, Chris Henry entered the fray after O’Mahony was carted off with a knee injury, and he was joined by Jack McGrath soon after, both to telling effect. French substitute scrum-half Morgan Parra narrowed the score to 14-9 when his kick from the 10 metre line split the Irish posts.
Ireland turned up the aggression once again with Henderson very much coming to the fore. At one stage, the Ulster second row caught an adversary and drove him 15 metres down the field, much to the delight of the feverous Irish supporters.
With 10 minutes to play Ireland had a lineout on their opponents’ ’22. Best threw to Heaslip as France decided not to engage the maul. Heaslip had the presence of mind to attack the retreating French to give Ireland the offensive initiative.
Attacks from McGrath, O’Brien, Toner and Henderson saw Ireland almost to the line through power and patience. When it seemed Best had driven over for a try, referee Nigel Owens let the play develop and Murray had the easiest of tasks to touch the ball to the bottom of the upright for Ireland’s second try.
It was the score to seal the day for Ireland. In the closing minutes, Ireland’s scrum began to dominate and from one of three penalty awards from this platform, Madigan extended the lead to 24-9.
After the game, Joe Schmidt cut a somewhat sombre figure as he took stock of the wounded and the injured from this battle. He may also have to plan without Sean O’Brien after the flanker was caught on video throwing a body punch at French lock Pape.
Ireland: R Kearney, T Bowe, K Earls, R Henshaw, D Kearney, J Sexton, C Murray, C Healy, R Best, M Ross, D Toner, P O'Connell (capt), P O'Mahony, S O'Brien, J Heaslip.
Subs: R Strauss, J McGrath, N White, I Henderson, C Henry, E Reddan, I Madigan, L Fitzgerald.
France: S Spedding; N Nakaitaci, M Bastareaud, W Fofana, B Dulin; F Michalak, S Tillous-Borde; E Ben Arous, G Guirado, R Slimani, P Pape, Y Maestri, T Dusautoir (capt), D Chouly, L Picamoles.
Subs: B Kayser, V Debaty, N Mas, A Flanquart, B Le Roux, M Parra, R Tales, A Dumoulin.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales).