Ireland open with victory over France
February 7, 2009
Ireland centre Gordon D'Arcy celebrates with his team mates after scoring a try at Croke Park
© Getty Images
Lionel Beauxis Gordon D'Arcy Imanol Harinordoquy Jamie Heaslip Maxime Medard Brian O'Driscoll Ronan O'Gara
Ireland defeated France 30-21 in a see-saw game at Croke Park to get their Six Nations tilt underway and lay to rest the ghosts of their last-gasp loss to the French in 2007.
The biggest smile at Croke Park will be sported by Leinster centre Gordon D'Arcy, who marked his return to the international stage after a year out with injury by crossing for a vital try just after an hour.
In a pulsating contest the crowd were treated to a back-and-forth display, with both sides at times showing their stunning ability to break from deep. France defied many of their critics by putting together a powerful forward effort and showing glimpses of the attacking arsenal that appeared blunted by coach Marc Lievremont's insistence on selecting youth over experience during last season's tournament.
Ireland coach Declan Kidney was taking charge of his first Six Nations game after taking the reins last summer, and he elected to pair skipper Brian O'Driscoll with Ulster's Paddy Wallace in the midfield. Ronan O'Gara and Tomas O'Leary started at half-back as they do week in week out, behind a pack hewn from Munster rock.
Ireland were ahead after only two minutes, when Ronan O'Gara slotted his opening penalty with trademark ease. The Ireland pack, sourced from the juggernaut Munster eight, exhibited superb ball retention right from kick-off with France unable to get their hands on the ball at any regular interval.
When they were able to garner some possession Lievremont's frustrating France looked dangerous, with Lionel Beauxis attempting to put width on the ball early and sending Yannick Jauzion into space at every opportunity.
The first half came to be dominated by the forwards however, with Sebastien Chabal and Thierry Dusautoir exerting their physical presence on the Ireland defence, centre Wallace trudging from the field with a gaping cut to his face.
French pressure eventually told when centre Florian Fritz split the Irish defence deep in his own half before Beauxis threw an arching wide pass to Chabal, the second-row lurking on the wing. Chabal popped an offload to re-called No.8 Imanol Harinordoquy who managed to stay infield and score.
Beauxis stroked over the extras only for France to immediately concede three points to O'Gara and Ireland after being penalised from the restart. France, though, continued to run the ball at all opportunities, and Beauxis beautifully orchestrated a sweeping move just after 20 minutes, gliding through the Irish defence before feeding Fritz, who kept the move going with a pass to Medard. Irish grunt again thwarted their advances with John Hayes popping up to snaffle the ball on the floor as his side looked decidedly stretched.
O'Gara missed a chance to put Ireland ahead with a penalty on half an hour after France were guilty of killing the ball, but shortly after he found his kicking game and pinned the French deep into their own half. Beauxis was again on hand to frustrate the Irish, gathering the ball from a solid line-out platform and sending a long kick down past half-way. It was then Ireland's turn to inject some pace into proceedings, with Paul O'Connell collecting clean lineout ball and feeding O'Leary. As the ball went into midfield the potent combination of Kearney and Tommy Bowe shredded the French defence. Bowe's late burst set up No.8 Jamie Heaslip for a dart to the line, and the Leinsterman turned Clement Poitrenaud with ease to crash over.
Ireland were not able to congratulate one another for long however, as Chabal again tore upfield before Beauxis slotted a nerveless drop-goal for a half-time score of 13-10 to the hosts.
Ireland exploded out of the traps after the break, with Brian O'Driscoll providing a timely reminder of his considerable talents. Taking a flat pass following another textbook lineout, he picked a classical line through the French centres before stepping inside a helpless Julien Malzieu to score. On that evidence, rumours of his international demise appear greatly exaggerated.
However all too quickly for Kidney's men, they were again awaiting a conversion under their own posts. With O'Gara looking for territory, Harinordoquy rumbled forward once again, before Beauxis chipped a delightful ball in behind the Irish back-three for wing Maxime Medard to scamper over.
With the conversion missed, Ireland looked to regroup. Unfortunately for them France were in no mood to slow down, their impressive back-three pinning O'Gara back into the corner before their forwards secured a turnover after some superb work by hooker Szarzewski. Beauxis sat back in the pocket and slotted his second drop-goal, with Ireland lucky not to have conceded another try.
It took another moment of O'Driscoll's best to turn the tide, the centre turning the French defence with a well judged grubber. With the ball secured, Beauxis could only slice the ball on to the five-metre line under excellent pressure from the Irish line. Replacement hooker Rory Best found his man and the Ireland forwards rumbled on. Quick ball from O'Leary found Gordon D'Arcy metres out, and the Leinster centre capped his return to international action by pivoting out of a French tackle to score.
D'Arcy's score preceded a lull, with a raft of French replacements denting their accuracy. It took a rare mistake from the otherwise excellent Kearney, slicing the ball out on the full, to grant France field position. Following several patient phases Ireland were penalised on the floor, and Beauxis slotted a simple penalty to bring the score to 27-21.
From the kick-off Luke Fitzgerald and Jamie Heaslip pulled off a superb double-tackle on replacement wing Cedric Heymans, the Toulouse man forced to hold on to the ball on the floor. O'Gara kicked the points, restoring their nine point cushion and sending them to a cathartic victory.
O'Driscoll was quick to play down any talk of Ireland's title credentials, calling for cal despite his side's first win over France since 2003.
"We've gained some momentum but while it's France we've beaten and they're top-class opposition, we shouldn't get carried away," he said. "You can't win a Six Nations in the first game but you can lose it in the first game. Essentially we're where we want to be after one match. We're happy with our performance and we'll enjoy this win, but from tomorrow it's all about Italy."
The Irish effort in pulling away once France had pegged them back to 20-18 during the second half plead O'Driscoll, as they pulled clear of a repeat of 2007's disastrous late capitulation.
"It's the sign of good opposition when you can't pull away from a side," said O'Driscoll. "When you play the best teams in the world they tend not to let you have a free run at it, even if things are going reasonably well. They had plenty of fight and overall the result was very pleasing. We learnt a lot from two years ago - that was clear from the way we hunted them down. Maybe there was a little knowledge in the team that we had it when we needed it second time around."
France boss Lieveremont found it difficult to conceal his disappointment at having made the worst possible start to this year's tournament.
"I'm exceptionally disappointed. Both the players and coaches are frustrated because we had high hopes for this match," he said. "We wanted to start the Six Nations well. There was a lack of discipline, especially early on. I find it hard to explain. Ireland were always making us play catch-up rugby, which is difficult to do at Croke Park. We produced some good moves and kicked two drop-goals but made too many bad choices and didn't finish our chances.
"We felt a sense of urgency because we were behind and they were able to break through our defence. Ireland are a very experienced team and they work together."
Ireland: Kearney; Bowe, B O'Driscoll (capt), P Wallace, Fitzgerald; O'Gara, O'Leary; Horan, Flannery, Hayes, O'Callaghan, O'Connell, Ferris, D Wallace, Heaslip.
Replacements: R Best for Flannery (49), Court, O'Kelly, Leamy, Stringer, D'Arcy for Wallace (63), Murphy for Kearney (79), Leamy for Ferris (79). Not Used: Court, O'Kelly, Stringer.
France: Poitrenaud; Malzieu, Fritz, Jauzion, Medard; Beauxis, Tillous-Borde; Faure, Szarzewski, Lecouls, Chabal, Nallet; Dusautoir, Ouedraogo, Harinordoquy.
Replacements: Kayser for Szarzewski (58), Mas for Lecouls (40), Millo-Chluski for Chabal (62), Picamoles for Harinordoquy (71), Parra for Tillous-Borde (68). Not Used:Baby, Heymans.
Man of the Match: Jamie Heaslip (Ireland)
Referee: N. Owens
Assistant referees: D. Pearson D. Changleng
Television Match Official: G. De Santis
Joe Simpson talks to Charlie Morgan about loss, Wasps and being England's game-breaker