Ireland and France combined to light up the 2009 RBS 6 Nations Championship at Croke Park on Saturday evening, duelling out an epic, action-packed encounter which went the hosts’ way thanks to converted tries from Jamie Heaslip, Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy.
2009 RBS 6 NATIONS CHAMPIONSHIP: Saturday, February 7
IRELAND 30 FRANCE 21, Croke Park
Scorers: Ireland: Tries: Jamie Heaslip, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy; Cons: Ronan O’Gara 3; Pens: Ronan O’Gara 3
France: Tries: Imanol Harinordoquy, Maxime Medard; Con: Lionel Beauxis; Pen: Lionel Beauxis; Drops: Lionel Beauxis 2
England and Italy may have kicked off the 2009 RBS 6 Nations at Twickenham a few hours earlier, but the tournament truly began in the cauldron of Croke Park where Ireland and France served up a cliffhanger of massive proportions.
Edge of the seat, jaw-dropping, throat-rasping and tear-inducing. Whatever way you describe it, Saturday’s exhaustive three-try victory over France will live long in the memory.
As a game, it had everything bar a sin-binning and a yellow card never really looked likely as both sides played attacking rugby in its purest sense and were wholehearted in their defensive approaches.
The Ireland players tackled their hearts out and it was on this rugged effort, that they built their first win over France in 2003.
After seven straight defeats to les Bleus, this was certainly a long time coming. There was some retribution for that last-gasp defeat when the sides met at Croke Park two years ago but to look back would do a disservice to what is hoped will be a fresh dawn under new coach Declan Kidney.
Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll talked during the week about the prospect of the team ‘clicking together’ and the back-line in particular.
Whatever work has been done by Kidney, his coaching staff and the players in recent weeks certainly bore fruit as the men in green put memories of past defeats to the French to bed and marked themselves out as serious title contenders.
This all-out 80-minute performance will have warmed the hearts of the Irish sporting public during these dark economic times and lest we forget, Ireland’s last Championship success came as the country battled off a recession in the mid-1980s.
Talk of the title is a long way off at present and all the immediate focus has to be on next weekend’s trip to Italy. O’Driscoll admitted as much in his post-match interview.
The momentum is there now but Ireland cannot afford to look beyond the next game and Kidney, a master of mind games, will not allow his players to do so.
This was breathless at times and it is testament to the supreme fitness levels of the players that they survived an onslaught of counter-attacks from the vibrant French.
Marc Lievremont’s men played with an envious abandon, taking quick lineouts and attacking from their 22 as the likes of Clement Poitrenaud, Julien Malzieu, Florian Fritz, Fulgence Ouedraogo and Sebastien Chabal took the chance to stretch their legs.
In times past, Ireland may have stumbled under the pressure as the navy shirts waded forward at them. But O’Driscoll and company were not budging and the Irish began to find holes in the opposition’s defence as the game progressed.
In the words of Paul O’Connell, every player ‘filled his jersey’. Ireland made a composed start, taking a third minute lead thanks to a Ronan O’Gara penalty.
O’Gara enjoyed a tremendous battle for control with France’s young number 10 Lionel Beauxis, who could turn out to be one of the players of the tournament.
France’s response was not immediate but when it came, it was as good a try as you will see in Test rugby.
Moving the ball from their 10-metre line all the way to the Irish whitewash, the ball passed through a plethora of hands before number 8 Imanol Harinordoquy dotted down in the left corner.
Before that, Chabal had enjoyed a barnstorming run and the enigmatic lock was involved for the try, which began with a lineout and crash-ball run from centre Fritz.
Ireland were on the back-foot after that and their defence was stretched as France, with Ouedraogo showing good hands, punched through on the right.
The ball was swung back out to the left, inside the hosts’ 22, where Chabal and Malzieu combined to send Harinordoquy charging over.
Beauxis brilliantly added the conversion but his forwards infringed off the restart and O’Gara took the opportunity to close the gap to 7-6.
Rob Kearney, in defence and attack, was seeing a lot of ball and the full-back hardly put a foot wrong. Tomas O’Leary was also in the thick of things but his box-kicking tactic was not paying off and it often allowed France the chance to launch themselves forward.
Paddy Wallace, making his first Six Nations start, had to have a head wound patched up as the half-hour approached, and his replacement Gordon D’Arcy, making his international return from a serious arm injury, received a warm reception on his introduction.
O’Gara missed his third penalty attempt but Ireland soon got over for their opening try.
Six minutes before half-time, Kearney and Bowe slipped through a series of tackles on the left wing and took play up to the French 22.
Some of Ireland’s backs had been drawn into the ensuing ruck, leaving the midfield a little short for pace but number 8 Heaslip showed he is certainly not lacking in that department.
After a pass on the turn from O’Connell, Heaslip accelerated into space 30 metres out. He weaved in and out before powering over to the right of the posts, past last-ditch tackles from Poitrenaud and Malzieu.
O’Gara nailed the close range conversion and despite being on the back foot for much of the half, Ireland were suddenly 13-7 to the good.
Keeping a grip on that scoreline up to half-time would have been the ideal scenario for the men in green but France, displaying their attacking class once again, built up a head of steam before the interval.
They got back within scoring range and Beauxis dinked over a drop goal to leave an absorbing match hanging in the balance.
Nonetheless, in striking the first blow of the second half, Ireland began to recapture the sort of form which saw them gain three Triple Crowns in the space of four years.
And fittingly, on the night when he was easily one of Ireland’s best performers, it was a piece of O’Driscoll magic that ripped open the French rearguard.
Three minutes into the half, the Irish skipper took the ball on in midfield and speared past Beauxis and Jauzion.
Dashing into the visitors’ 22, O’Driscoll threw a superb final step to get inside the covering Malzieu and dive over to the left of the posts. The richly deserved score took his Irish try-scoring record to 33.
O’Gara knocked over the extras to make it 20-10 and France fell off the boil for a time, with handling errors creeping into their game.
The work ethic and sheer physicality from Ireland was immense and players like O’Connell, Stephen Ferris, Heaslip and John Hayes, on the occasion of his 90th cap, put in sterling efforts.
O’Connell picked off a number of important lineouts, combining well with Jerry Flannery and Rory Best, and he also helped set up a destructive maul or two.
But with Beauxis pulling the strings, France fired back in clinical fashion.
After a series of short, sharp attacks, Beauxis spotted a mismatch on the right wing and he dangled a kick out for Maxime Medard to gather and swoop to score in the corner.
Beauxis’ conversion attempt went wide but the Stade Francais clubman made amends when he collected his second drop goal, just when it looked like the French would strike for another try.
O’Gara missed a penalty opportunity, as Ireland pressed for a response, and les Bleus were clearly growing in confidence.
Scrum half Sebastien Tillous-Borde found more room around the fringes and fresh legs from the bench also played their part.
Ireland themselves brought on Best, D’Arcy, Denis Leamy and Geordan Murphy during the final quarter and their experience helped steady the ship when France put the pressure on.
O’Driscoll sent a well-weighted kick down the left touchline to get Ireland back into the visitors’ 22 and just minutes later, they were over for a third try.
O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, David Wallace and Ferris grinded their way forward, setting up a maul off a lineout. Marcus Horan, who also got through an amount of work, helped recycle the ball as Ireland inched forward.
O’Leary took the option to release the backs and a snappy pass from him gave D’Arcy a sniff of a try.
The Hollywood script writers went into overdrive when the Wexford man danced past the first defender and then swivelled his way over the line to touch down and crown his Test rugby return.
As O’Gara tapped the conversion through the posts, the buzz of excitement in the stadium turned to anxiety as supporters noted that there were still 14 minutes left in the game.
Even though Ireland were now 27-18 ahead, the tension was obvious and most of it harked back to the sides’ 2007 meeting when a late Vincent Clerc try robbed Ireland of victory.
France duly jangled Irish nerves when a Beauxis penalty got them back to within a converted try at 27-21.
But the ice cool O’Gara snapped back those three points when he converted a 78th minute penalty, after good work from Fitzgerald and man-of-the-match Heaslip.
France ended the game camped deep in Irish territory. It was to no avail, however, as Kidney’s men stood tall and kept their line intact. O’Gara’s kick has copperfastened the win, two minutes earlier, and what a win it was.
The shackles of the last World Cup have well and truly been thrown off but determined to maintain this momentum, Ireland will no doubt keep their feet on the ground in the realisation that four tough Test matches lie ahead for them.
TIME LINE: 3 minutes – Ireland penalty: Ronan O’Gara – 3-0; 14 mins – France try: Imanol Harinordoquy – 3-5; conversion: Lionel Beauxis – 3-7; 17 mins – Ireland penalty: Ronan O’Gara – 6-7; 34 mins – Ireland try: Jamie Heaslip – 11-7; conversion: Ronan O’Gara – 13-7; 40+1 mins – France drop goal: Lionel Beauxis – 13-10; Half-time – Ireland 13 France 10; 43 mins – Ireland try: Brian O’Driscoll – 18-10; conversion: Ronan O’Gara – 20-10; 50 mins – France try: Maxime Medard – 20-15; conversion: missed by Lionel Beauxis – 20-15; 53 mins – France drop goal: Lionel Beauxis – 20-18; 56 mins – Ireland penalty: missed by Ronan O’Gara – 20-18; 66 mins – Ireland try: Gordon D’Arcy – 25-18; conversion: Ronan O’Gara – 27-18; 76 mins – France penalty: Lionel Beauxis – 27-21; 78 mins – Ireland penalty: Ronan O’Gara – 30-21; Full-time – Ireland 30 France 21
IRELAND: Robert Kearney; Tommy Bowe, Brian O’Driscoll (capt), Paddy Wallace, Luke Fitzgerald; Ronan O’Gara, Tomas O’Leary; Marcus Horan, Jerry Flannery, John Hayes, Donncha O’Callaghan, Paul O’Connell, Stephen Ferris, David Wallace, Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements used: Gordon D’Arcy for Wallace (29-36 mins, blood sub), Rory Best for Flannery (50), Gordon D’Arcy for Wallace (62), Denis Leamy for Ferris (73), Geordan Murphy for Kearney (76). Not used: Tom Court, Malcolm O’Kelly, Peter Stringer.
FRANCE: Clement Poitrenaud; Julien Malzieu, Florian Fritz, Yannick Jauzion, Maxime Medard; Lionel Beauxis, Sebastien Tillous-Borde; Lionel Faure, Dimitri Szarzewski, Benoit Lecouls, Sebastien Chabal, Lionel Nallet (capt), Thierry Dusautoir, Fulgence Ouedraogo, Imanol Harinordoquy.
Replacements used: Nicolas Mas for Lecouls (half-time), Benjamin Kayser for Szarzewski (59 mins), Romain Millo-Chluski for Chabal (62), Morgan Parra for Tillous-Borde (68), Louis Picamoles for Harinordoquy (71), Cedric Heymans for Poitrenaud (74), Benoit Baby for Fritz (79).
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)