...Paul O'Connell looks for some divine intervention after another French try...
Hard to fathom. A luckless, fragmented first half was followed by a rollercoaster of a second as Ireland hit France for four quick fire tries to almost pull off an unlikely win in Paris.
RBS 6 NATIONS: Saturday, February 11
FRANCE 43 IRELAND 31, Stade de France (Att: 80,000)
Scorers: France: Tries: Aurelien Rougerie, Olivier Magne, David Marty 2, Cedric Heymans 2; Cons: Jean-Baptiste Elissalde 5; Pen: Elissalde
Ireland: Tries: Ronan O'Gara, Gordon D'Arcy, Donncha O'Callaghan, Andrew Trimble; Cons: O'Gara 4; Pen: O'Gara
Eddie O'Sullivan's side avoided a humiliating defeat by touching down four times in a stunning 16-minute spell in the second half as the hosts visibly tired, but a defeat it was nonetheless. Unfortunately, by the time of the first Irish try from fly half Ronan O'Gara, who moved ahead of David Humphreys (560) in the all-time points-scoring stakes - his 16-point haul pushed the record up to 563, les Bleus were already 43-3 in front.
A combination of unforced errors and seriously bad luck helped France grab four tries without reply in the first half for a 29-3 lead at the break. Aurelien Rougerie and Olivier Magne, two of the players that coach Bernard Laporte recalled into the French squad last week, crossed for the first two, while David Marty and Cedric Heymans also scored in the opening 40 minutes.
Just eight minutes into the second half, all and sundry were reaching for the record books as Heymans and Marty scored again to push Laporte's men 43-3 in front. Ireland were just two points off their biggest ever score conceded to the French - 1996's 45-10 collapse in Paris. Then, out of nowhere, one of the greatest comeback bids in Test rugby was on the cards.
Tries from O'Gara, Gordon D'Arcy, and replacements Donncha O'Callaghan and Andrew Trimble suddenly had O'Sullivan's charges on the front foot and only 12 points behind with six minutes remaining.
There were further snipes at the French line as the Irish tried in vein to score two more tries and pull off a famous victory, but the clock got the better of them. Still, in a game of two halves, Ireland can take a good deal of positives into their next RBS 6 Nations outing against 2005 champions Wales on Sunday, February 26 (Lansdowne Road, kick-off 3.00pm).
'Un match bizarre' began in fine style for the French. With Ireland struggling in the early scrums, full-back Christophe Dominici came into the line and sent recalled winger Rougerie thundering down the right touchline and over past the tackle of Geordan Murphy after only 3 minutes. An untimely slip by Tommy Bowe, when coming up in defence, had allowed Rougerie extra space to manoeuvre through.
Jean-Baptiste Elissalde converted and adding the extras to a 'soft' try for flanker Magne, four minutes later. Fly half Frederic Michalak chased his own kick down the left, then capitalised on a collision between Denis Leamy and Murphy, who were both going for the loose ball, and he shifted play inside for London Irish forward Magne to charge over under the posts.
Matters got worse when Marty charged down an O'Gara clearance kick for try number three, converted again by Elissalde, on 17 minutes. O'Gara replied with a penalty for Ireland's first points, 12 minutes later, but the French ended the half on song and armed with a 29-3 buffer. Elissalde kicked his first and only penalty and then Murphy's intended pass for captain Brian O'Driscoll was intercepted in midfield by Heymans and the Toulouse winger ran in unopposed for France's fourth try.
The decidedly subdued home crowd, which Laporte termed "bourgeoisie du merde" afterwards, were not overly impressed. Even tries for Heymans and Marty after 45 and 48 minutes raised little cheer. It was evident to even the most patriotic of home supporters that Ireland had been and continued to, in the words of O'Sullivan, "play all the rugby." Ireland won 104 balls in open play, threw 198 passes and made 20 line breaks in an exhaustive 80 minutes - there was little doubt about who was playing the rugby, but unfortunately for the travelling support of 7,000, the men in green were left cursing a first half riddled with mistakes.
Under increased pressure in the second half, the French conceded their first try to O'Gara, who rounded behind the posts after a pass from Peter Stringer, on 59 minutes. O'Gara converted for 43-10.
The Irish backs were beginning to dominate with some excellent lines of running, most notably from D'Arcy, O'Driscoll and Murphy. D'Arcy cut through the French midfield for his third Test try and first since the 2004 Triple Crown win over Scotland. Then sub O'Callaghan, who had a lively half-hour, muscled over from a close range drive on 70 minutes for his first try to close the gap further.
Almost unbelieveably, Trimble repeated the dose four minutes later when he was put over by a brilliant O'Driscoll break and pass. O'Gara converted Trimble's third try in as many Tests, and it was game on at 43-31.
The nervy French held on, but Ireland held their heads high at the finish having ended the stronger. Pride regained having become the first Irish team to ever score four tries against France in Paris (the 1913 vintage scored six against the French in Cork), Sunday week's clash with Wales will now make or break Ireland's season. Triple Crown anyone?
FRANCE: Christophe Dominici; Aurelien Rougerie, Florian Fritz, David Marty, Cedric Heymans; Frederic Michalak, Jean-Baptiste Elissalde; Olivier Milloud, Raphael Ibanez, Pieter De Villiers, Fabien Pelous (capt), Jerome Thion, Yannick Nyanga, Olivier Magne, Julien Bonnaire.
Replacements used: Remy Martin for Magne (38 mins-ht), Sebastien Bruno for Ibanez (47), Sylvain Marconnet for Milloud, Remy Martin for Magne, Dimitri Yachvili for Elissalde (all 58), Benjamin Boyet for Michalak (68), Lionel Nallet for Nyanga (71), Olivier Magne for Martin (72-73). Not used: Ludovic Valbon.
IRELAND: Geordan Murphy; Shane Horgan, Brian O'Driscoll (capt), Gordon D'Arcy, Tommy Bowe; Ronan O'Gara, Peter Stringer; Reggie Corrigan, Jerry Flannery, John Hayes, Malcolm O'Kelly, Paul O'Connell, Simon Easterby, David Wallace, Denis Leamy.
Replacements used: Donncha O'Callaghan for O'Kelly, Simon Best for Corrigan (both 50 mins), Andrew Trimble for Bowe (62), Eoin Reddan for O'Driscoll (76). Not used: Rory Best, Johnny O'Connor, David Humphreys.
Referee: Paul Honiss (New Zealand)
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