Ireland came from 26-6 down in an absorbing second half at Stade de France on Saturday to leave France clinging on for their second straight win of the 2008 Six Nations. Although a late surge almost yielded a match-winning try for the visitors, hat-trick hero Vincent Clerc once again proved to be Ireland’s tormentor-in-chief.
2008 RBS SIX NATIONS: Saturday, February 9
FRANCE 26 IRELAND 21, Stade de France
Scorers: France: Tries: Vincent Clerc 3, Cedric Heymans; Cons: Jean-Baptiste Elissalde 3
Ireland: Try: Penalty try, David Wallace; Con: Ronan O’Gara; Pens: Ronan O’Gara 3
Some ill-advised substitutions by Marc Lievremont almost backfired on the new French coach as he took off Dimitri Szarzewski and Lionel Faure, two-thirds of his starting front row, with over half-an-hour remaining.
Ireland grew in stature and confidence as the second half wore on and began to stamp their authority on the scrum, which won them a penalty try, and in the maul, which led to David Wallace’s touchdown from close range.
True, the Irish really made a game of it and great credit must go to the players for mounting a comeback after going 26-6 down early in the second half, drawing parallels with their 2006 visit to the venue when they were 43-3 in arrears.
Ireland dared to dream and a third Ronan O’Gara penalty got them within five points with little over five minutes remaining. It set up a tumultuous finish.
France ended the game feverishly defending their try-line and with two inexperienced half-backs on the field in Francois Trinh-Duc and Morgan Parra.
They squeezed home though, thanks to some committed tackling and mainly due to the first half flamboyance of Messrs. Clerc, Heymans and Rougerie. They were the difference between the sides.
France boast the best back-three in European rugby bar none and it is this scintillating unit which could drive them to another Six Nations crown, particularly with two of their remaining three matches at home.
Despite a solid start, Ireland made too many mistakes in the first half, losing four of their lineout throws, coughing up turnover ball and missing out on try-scoring opportunities in the hosts’ 22, not least when they had a four-to-two overlap on the left.
The best of their attacking moves involved Andrew Trimble, Rob Kearney and David Wallace but frustratingly Irish pressure was very rarely turned into points.
A stunning gallop forward by Rougerie, who took a quick tap in his 22 and pinned his ears back really got France going. Elissalde missed a simple penalty in the interim but the hosts were ominously coming to the boil.
Their first try arrived in the 15th-minute. French captain Lionel Nallet counter-rucked and barged Eoin Reddan off the ball near the hosts’ ten-metre line, France swept forward as Elissalde planted a perfectly-weighted kick down the left channel for Clerc to take it on the bounce and beat the covering Denis Leamy for the left corner.
France infringed straight off the restart, failing to release, and O’Gara landed the penalty for 7-3 but Clerc’s second try was just around the corner.
Running a great angle, French out-half David Skrela took his cue by speeding through a gap between Geordan Murphy and Leamy and a swift pass put the electric Clerc over. It was a deft move made to look very simple – French rugby at its best.
The score went unconverted and although O’Gara cut the gap to 12-6 with his second penalty, Ireland continued to miss out on chances. Presented with an attacking lineout inside the French 22, Bernard Jackman’s throw was disappointingly picked off by Julien Bonnaire and France were allowed to regroup.
Whereas Ireland had failed to make the most of turnover ball for much of the opening half, France reveled in exposing a gap or two in the Irish defence and their thrusts forward were all engineered at break-neck speed.
Witness Clerc’s third try, three minutes before the interval, when full-back Cedric Heymans roared up in the line, put on the after-burners to evade the grasp of Trimble and he found Clerc on the cut for a score which delighted the home support.
Luck was most definitely not on Ireland’s side when they conceded a fourth try, nine minutes after the resumption. An Elissalde grubber kick bounced horribly off Brian O’Driscoll and popped up perfectly for the onrushing Heymans to collect and race 40 metres to the line.
Now 20 points adrift, Ireland shunned a shot at the posts and set about working the ball through their forwards.
They established a decent advantage and foothold in French territory and when France, with new front rowers Julien Brugnaut and William Servat not yet up to the pace of the game, infringed three times at a scrum close to their line, referee Nigel Owens ventured under the posts for a penalty try.
O’Gara tapped over the simple conversion and the Irish pack, helped hugely by the galvanising presence of Mick O’Driscoll, began to make further headway.
Wallace lunged brilliantly for the line after a maul in the right corner and although O’Gara cracked his conversion attempt away to the right, France’s lead was suddenly down to 26-18.
Ireland really upped the tempo in the final quarter-hour with skipper O’Driscoll popping up all over the pitch. He almost found Murphy with a looped pass that might have chalked up another try.
O’Gara, who thrived in the second half, nervelessly swung over a 76th-minute penalty to put Ireland within a converted score and Eddie O’Sullivan’s men were now dominant.
Number 8 Jamie Heaslip, who had a full Six Nations debut to remember, was truly imposing himself on the French and gaining good yardage off the base of the scrum and in the loose.
The Munster trio of Wallace, O’Driscoll and Donncha O’Callaghan were to the fore as the visitors marched back towards the French 22, with replacement prop Tony Buckley thundering into rucks and hooker Rory Best also influential.
There was another missed opportunity when Reddan scampered clean through a lineout, after a tap down from Heaslip, but France scrambled back to shut Ireland out.
The Irish kept hammering away at the home side. However, with time not on their side, a last throw of the dice saw a Murphy chip to the right corner run into touch by Heymans.
Soon after, referee Owens’ final whistle brought about a collective sigh of relief from les Bleus, who still have the championship and Grand Slam within their sights.
For Ireland, pride was undoubtedly restored by that gutsy second half display which was a world away from what was seen in France last September.
The belief has to be there now that there is something tangible for them to take from the 2008 tournament, whether that be the overall title or the Triple Crown, and more fruitful days ahead – beginning with February 23.
TIME LINE: 5 mins – France penalty: missed by Jean-Baptiste Elissalde – 0-0; 15 mins – France try: Vincent Clerc – 5-0; conversion: Jean-Baptiste Elissalde – 7-0; 18 mins – Ireland penalty: Ronan O’Gara – 7-3; 19 mins – France try: Vincent Clerc – 12-3; conversion: missed by Jean-Baptiste Elissalde – 12-3; 30 mins – Ireland penalty: Ronan O’Gara – 12-6; 37 mins – France try: Vincent Clerc – 17-6; conversion: Jean-Baptiste Elissalde – 19-6; Half-time – France 19 Ireland 6; 49 mins – France try: Cedric Heymans – 24-6; conversion: Jean-Baptiste Elissalde – 26-6; 58 mins – Ireland try: Penalty try – 26-11; conversion: Ronan O’Gara – 26-13; 62 mins – Ireland try: David Wallace – 26-18; conversion: missed by Ronan O’Gara – 26-18; 76 mins – Ireland penalty: Ronan O’Gara – 26-21; Full-time – France 26 Ireland 21
FRANCE: Cedric Heymans; Aurelien Rougerie, David Marty, Damien Traille, Vincent Clerc; David Skrela, Jean-Baptiste Elissalde; Nicolas Mas, Dimitri Szarzewski, Lionel Faure, Arnaud Mela, Lionel Nallet (capt), Fulgence Ouedraogo, Thierry Dusautoir, Julien Bonnaire.
Replacements used: Loic Jacquet for Mela (19-22 mins, blood sub, 50), William Servat for Szarzewski, Julien Brugnaut for Faure (both 47), Louis Picamoles for Ouedraogo (63), Morgan Parra for Elissalde (64), Francois Trinh-Duc for Skrela (76). Not used: Anthony Floch.
IRELAND: Girvan Dempsey; Geordan Murphy, Brian O’Driscoll (capt), Andrew Trimble, Robert Kearney; Ronan O’Gara, Eoin Reddan; Marcus Horan, Bernard Jackman, John Hayes, Donncha O’Callaghan, Malcolm O’Kelly, Denis Leamy, David Wallace, Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements used: Mick O’Driscoll for O’Kelly (53 mins), Rory Best for Jackman (61), Tony Buckley for Hayes (77). Not used: Simon Easterby, Peter Stringer, Paddy Wallace, Shane Horgan.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)