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Clerc Try Sees Slam Hopes Slip Away

Clerc Try Sees Slam Hopes Slip Away

Bringing back memories of that heartbreaking defeat to Australia at the 1991 World Cup, a Paul O’Connell-led Irish side went down 20-17 at Croke Park on Sunday, with French winger Vincent Clerc scoring a decisive last-minute try.

2007 RBS SIX NATIONS CHAMPIONSHIP: Sunday, February 11

IRELAND 17 FRANCE 20, Croke Park (Att: 81,572)

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Scorers: Ireland: Try: Ronan O’Gara; Pens: O’Gara 4
France: Tries: Raphael Ibanez, Vincent Clerc; Cons: David Skrela, Lionel Beauxis; Pens: Skrela 2

France are fast becoming Ireland’s bogey team during the Eddie O’Sullivan era – Clerc’s 79th-minute try signalled Ireland’s fifth successive defeat at the hands of Les Bleus since the 2003 World Cup.

After a below par first half performance, the Irish emerged a renewed force on the resumption and two penalties from Ronan O’Gara, Ireland’s only scorer on the day, gave them every chance of keeping their Grand Slam hopes alive.

But following O’Gara’s 78th-minute penalty, which edged the hosts into a 17-13 lead, Lionel Beauxis’ restart kick was spilled and gobbled up by the French pack.

Clinically, the visitors moved within striking range, scrum half Pierre Mignoni spotted a mismatch inside the Irish 22, fed the onrushing Clerc and the Toulouse wide man showed admirable pose to slalom through and touch down to the left of the posts.

Cue the Gallic celebrations, Beauxis clipped over the conversion and just moments later, referee Steve Walsh blew for full-time – Ireland had lost on their first appearance at Croke Park, and in the cruellest of fashions.

On such an historic afternoon, it was a crushing loss for O’Connell and his men, particularly with injured duo Brian O’Driscoll and Peter Stringer watching on from the Hogan Stand.

The atmosphere was electric at the home of the GAA as the minutes ticked down towards the first ever rugby international to be held at the Association’s headquarters.

The emotion of the occasion, etched all over John Hayes’ face, was heightened as memorable renditions of ‘La Marseillaise’, ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’ and ‘Ireland’s Call’ rung out around the Dublin 3 venue.

Ireland have become noted as slow starters in recent championships, and so it came to pass again as the French built up an early head of steam from an encouraging rolling maul.

A penalty opportunity duly came in the third-minute – Denis Leamy prevented a quick ruck release – and David Skrela sent it through the uprights for an early French lead.

The Stade Francais out-half added another in the ninth-minute, as the Irish, starved of possession, struggled to gain a foothold in the game.

After a nervous opening, O’Sullivan’s charges began to loosen up and a great tackle by Shane Horgan on David Marty, with the French centre failing to release in contact, allowed O’Gara to fling over his first penalty success.

However, barely a minute later, the French were back on the attack and a neat offload from Christophe Dominici to his skipper, Raphael Ibanez, saw the hooker shrug off Geordan Murphy’s attempted tackle and slide over for a try at the Hill 16 end.

Skrela converted and Bernard Laporte’s side had a 13-3 buffer to fall back on. Worryingly, France were dominating all facets of play and their stranglehold on possession offered Irish supporters little hope for the remainder.

But gradually, with David Wallace at his ball-carrying best, Ireland got back into contention. They signalled their intent by kicking a penalty to touch and from the resulting lineout, Gordon D’Arcy squirmed his way up close to the French line.

A penalty followed, which O’Gara sent over, and eight minutes before the break, the Munster number 10 increased his influence when he darted over in the left corner for a try out of nothing.

A sliced clearance kick from Clement Poitrenaud had the French on the back foot, and O’Gara used the platform to launch a left wing attack.

O’Gara dummied a drop goal attempt, found Denis Hickie, who did brilliantly to draw in three men before offloading to Horgan. The Leinster man passed to Wallace who took contact and popped a superbly-weighted pass for the supporting O’Gara to dot down.

The conversion flew by the right post but Ireland were right back in it at 13-11. Still, there were a lot of concerns in the Irish defence. Just moments after the try, a pulsating drive from Imanol Harinordoquy, who was in the right place to claim a blocked kick from Mignoni, looked to have the French in for their second try.

Redeeming himself for the earlier missed tackle, Murphy producing a try-saving challenge on Yannick Jauzion as he smothered a pass from the France number 12 as he attempted to spring a three-man overlap out on the left flank.

The crowd raised the decibel level as Leamy kicked clear and Hickie chased Dominici down. Psychologically, Ireland ended the first half on the up as they kept their try line intact and Skrela missed two kickable penalties.

Referee Walsh failed to endear himself to the Croke Park masses, just six minutes into the second half. The New Zealander failed to play advantage as Murphy swooped on a knock-on from Imanol Harinordoquy and raced from the Irish 22 to the French try line. Frustratingly for the hosts, Walsh had blown the whistle for the infringement before Murphy set off on his run.

A converted try then and who knows how the game would have panned out? As it was, Ireland produced a much-improved display in the second half, taking the game to the champions.

The quick-stepping D’Arcy was punching holes in the French midfield, the error count was cut and the Irish pack began to look more comfortable in their surroundings.

France leaked a 56th-minute penalty which O’Gara thumped through the posts and Ireland led for the first time at 14-13. The pendulum was certainly swinging.

The final quarter was played at a frenetic pace and it was a case of who could last the longer. The Irish management threw Andrew Trimble, Jerry Flannery and Neil Best into the fray, much to the crowd’s delight.

They lapped up the latter two’s abrasive style and Best’s turnover, ten minutes from time, on the Irish 22 was cheered to the rafters.

Only from a slip, a 20-metre break from Trimble on the right wing may have produced more for the home side, who missed out on another penalty chance.

Marcus Horan was impeded twice as he chased down his own hacked kick, in the French 22, but there was no whistle from Walsh and France got back to clear their lines.

More drama followed as Lionel Beauxis, who came on for the injured Skrela, drew gasps as his 35-metre drop goal attempt bounced back off off a post.

An exhaustive Irish maul, which rumbled forward for 20 metres, deservedly handed Ireland a late chance to extend their lead – O’Gara, who was named the RBS man of the match, duly obliged with a thumping kick to put Ireland 17-13 in front.

But ninety seconds of mayhem followed as Ireland failed to control Beauxis’ restart kick, the French took possession and launched a furious attack out on the right. A quick ruck was formed and the ball was spread back into midfield for Clerc to strike with the killer blow.

Beauxis made it a seven-pointer and a devastated Ireland were out for the count.

TIME LINE: 3 minutes – France penalty: David Skrela – 0-3; 9 mins – France penalty: David Skrela – 0-6; 13 mins – Ireland penalty: Ronan O’Gara – 3-6; 15 mins – France try: Raphael Ibanez – 3-11; conversion: David Skrela – 3-13; 24 mins – Ireland penalty: Ronan O’Gara – 6-13; 32 mins – Ireland try: Ronan O’Gara – 11-13; conversion: missed by Ronan O’Gara – 11-13; 37 mins – France penalty: missed by David Skrela; 40+1 mins – France penalty: missed by David Skrela; Half-time – Ireland 11 France 13; 56 mins – Ireland penalty: Ronan O’Gara – 14-13; 78 mins – Ireland penalty: Ronan O’Gara – 17-13; 79 mins – France try: Vincent Clerc – 17-18; conversion: Lionel Beauxis – 17-20; Full-time – Ireland 17 France 20

IRELAND: Girvan Dempsey; Geordan Murphy, Gordon D’Arcy, Shane Horgan, Denis Hickie; Ronan O’Gara, Isaac Boss; Marcus Horan, Rory Best, John Hayes, Donncha O’Callaghan, Paul O’Connell (capt), Simon Easterby, David Wallace, Denis Leamy.

Replacements used: Andrew Trimble for Murphy, Jerry Flannery for R Best (both 61 mins), Neil Best for Easterby (64). Not used: Simon Best, Mick O’Driscoll, Eoin Reddan, Paddy Wallace.

FRANCE: Clement Poitrenaud; Vincent Clerc, David Marty, Yannick Jauzion, Christophe Dominici; David Skrela, Pierre Mignoni; Sylvain Marconnet, Raphael Ibanez (capt), Pieter de Villiers, Lionel Nallet, Pascal Pape, Serge Betsen, Imanol Harinordoquy, Sebastien Chabal.

Replacements used: Jerome Thion for Pape (51 mins), Julien Bonnaire for Chabal (54), Lionel Beauxis for Skrela (57), Olivier Milloud for de Villiers (60), Sebastien Bruno for Ibanez (74), Cedric Heymans for Poitrenaud (75). Not used: Dimitri Yachvili.

Referee: Steve Walsh (New Zealand)