A first half double from Tommy Bowe had Ireland on course for a famous Six Nations victory in Paris, but France held Declan Kidney’s men scoreless in the closing 40 minutes as the sides played out a pulsating draw.
Lifting their level of performance from previous outings, Ireland had the World Cup runners-up under all sorts of pressure with a smothering, aggressive defence and an infectiously high work-rate set by Paul O’Connell and matched by his team-mates.
Tommy Bowe again underlined his qualities as a top class finisher, picking off an intercept for a 13th minute try and adding a terrific solo effort on the cusp of half-time.
With two minutes left before the break, Bowe collected Keith Earls’ delayed pass to race up the right touchline, chip over the top and gather the bouncing ball before dummying the covering Francois Trinh-Duc to make the line.
The winger’s fourth and fifth tries of the 2012 Championship gave Declan Kidney’s men a 17-6 lead and a huge opportunity to end a run of defeats at the Stade de France where Ireland have not won since Brian O’Driscoll’s hat-trick heroics in 2000.
But costly penalties – Morgan Parra converted four of his shots at the posts – saw the French close the gap and Wesley Fofana’s try out of nothing in the 51st minute gave the hosts added impetus.
In a strength-sapping final half hour, fought out in a rain shower, Parra’s levelling penalty in the 58th minute proved to be the final scoring act.
Ireland enjoyed a couple of spells in the French 22 but were unable to add to their tally, despite some powerful thrusts from a masterful Rob Kearney and the tireless back row trio of Stephen Ferris, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip.
Ferris and his Ulster colleague Rory Best, in particular, were immense in defence, putting their bodies on the line time and again as France built for a final crescendo.
Credit to Ireland though, they kept their discipline to fend off a late onslaught from les Bleus who had two missed drop goal attempts from Lionel Beauxis with his second effort brilliantly blocked by a charging Ferris.
The draw is Ireland’s first stalemate at Test level since they drew 20-20 with Australia at Croke Park in November 2009. The last draw between Ireland and France occurred back in March 1985 at Lansdowne Road (15-15).
After completing their first three matches in this year’s Six Nations, Kidney’s charges lie fourth in the table with three points. England (4 points), France (5) and Triple Crown winners Wales (6) are above them.
France, unbeaten until today’s rescheduled game, recalled full-back Clement Poitrenaud and flanker Julien Bonnaire following their narrow defeat over Scotland and the former was influential early on.
He showed nimble feet to break from his own 22 before play was held up as winger Vincent Clerc recovered from a fierce tackle by a typically fired-up Cian Healy.
France were showing some dangerous touches in attack, but their attempts at offloading were repeatedly foiled by Ireland wrapping them up in the tackle with O’Connell and Jonathan Sexton both prominent in this regard.
Recent Irish attempts at storming the Stade de France have been undermined by lacklustre starts, but here it was the hosts’ turn to implode in the opening quarter.
A ponderous attack from just outside the French 22 reached centre Rougerie, whose lazy floated pass intended for winger Julien Malzieu instead found the lurking Bowe.
The in-form winger made light work of the gallop home and when Sexton converted from beneath the posts, Ireland were 7-0 ahead.
Morgan Parra and Sexton exchanged penalties before Bowe almost escaped with another intercept try, though this time the ball slipped from his fingertips as he got in between Parra and Trinh-Duc.
Ireland were penalised for a scrum infringement, allowing Parra to land a monster three points that reduced the deficit to 7-3. The visitors’ usually reliable set piece game let them down on occasion, with a couple of loose lineouts in both halves.
In his attempts to get back onside, Healy collided with Clerc just as the winger was about to field a pass with France moving the ball at pace out to the right.
But the young loosehead prop breathed a sigh of relief when Parra missed the resulting penalty, pushing his effort to the right of the posts, and the French then fell further behind as Bowe struck once again.
Swift hands and a mix-up in defence allowed him to break free and with support from the energetic Kearney, Bowe managed to take advantage of a kind bounce to run in his 24th try in 47 outings for Ireland.
The second half was ushered in by rain and it took Parra seven minutes to land his third penalty, but Ireland were soon back on the front foot and hungry as ever for work.
Winger Andrew Trimble had the ball knocked from his hand as he switched with Jamie Heaslip near the left touchline and a promising move came to an end.
Irish hearts sank when France touched down in the 51st minute, initially profiting from good fortune during a loose passage of play.
Earls failed to get a boot to a breaking ball, and it made its way into the arms of Fofana and the centre accelerated clear, squeezing over in the left corner past Kearney’s last-ditch challenge.
The momentum had clearly shifted and despite some hard graft from Ireland in defence, Parra rifled over a long range penalty to bring the French level with 22 minutes remaining.
Moments later Ireland’s young scrum half Conor Murray was replaced by Eoin Reddan after being stretchered off with an injured right knee. He sustained the damage when falling awkwardly as he competed for a high ball.
Ireland gritted their teeth and then spent a sustained spell in the opposition half with their big ball carriers suddenly coming to the fore. But crucially, they failed to trouble the scoreboard.
In a tense, strength-sapping finale French replacement Beauxis sent a poorly-struck drop goal under the crossbar and then saw a second blocked by Ferris.
France, camped in an ominous position, conceded a penalty with two minutes to go but then had one last throw of the dice only for Julien Malzieu to be bundled into touch as Ireland, thanks to some heroic defending, hung on for a deserved share of the spoils.
O’Connell spoke afterwards of this being ‘a lost opportunity’ and there were certainly mixed emotions for the Irish players at the conclusion of the game, but they had hold their heads high.
On this evidence, they are on an upward curve. The lasting memory of the game for many Ireland fans is likely to be the commanding display from full-back Kearney, who simply lorded it under the high ball and showed off his positional awareness and counter-attacking ability to telling effect.