THE PRE-MATCH belief in Ireland’s ability to masterfully carry out Joe Schmidt’s latest game plan was tested as soon as one entered a frenzied Stade de France this evening.
Any doubts that France would provide their finest performance of the championship were quelled by the volume and simmering atmosphere of an unexplainable Parisian confidence.
The coaches boxes are situated in the lower tiers of the stand, in amongst the supporters; would the messages from Schmidt and his coaching team be clear? Paul O’Connell seemed confused when Steve Walsh informed him his team were playing from right to left in the first half rather than vice-versa; was the Irish focus in tune?
Discipline had been a cornerstone of Ireland’s Six Nations campaign, but there was Chris Henry being pinged in the first minute and allowing Maxime Machenaud to give the home team a 3-0 lead.
Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll have built their careers on chopping down bigger men, but here was the beastly Mathieu Bastareaud careering straight through them in the third minute.
Brass bands at either end of the Stade de France reacted to les Bleus’ explosive start, bouncing their tunes off each other as if teasing the Irish players. There was an early sense that this was exactly how Philippe Saint-André wanted the game to play out.
But Schmidt’s Ireland are made of sterner stuff than so many of their peers in the recent past. They rode out the storm as the Fields of Athenry bellowed out, managing the frenetic French attack and then showing an utterly clinical edge to score two superb tries midway through the first half.
The second in particular showed what Schmidt has brought to the international arena. Conor Murray knew space would appear to the right of the ruck after O’Driscoll’s carry, Andrew Trimble knew he would get a pass from the scrum-half if he ran the trailing run from deep; Ireland’s players trusting the plan, a joy to watch.
Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
And France came back again to make it a thrilling encounter; what better way for Ireland to win the Six Nations than by winning away against a team performing at their seasonal peak. The precision and skill shown by Huget, Talès and a host of tryline-battering forwards to create Dulin’s try would have made Schmidt himself proud.
It took something extra from Ireland to get over their crippling Parisian hurdle. The stunning Chris Henry offload for Sexton’s first try, the exuberance of the counter-attack to create the out-half’s second; Irish players imposing themselves on the game rather than hoping it would fall their way.
The endgame pushed those present and watching at home to the edge of their seats, as we had suspected it would. Ireland just don’t cope with these situations, the noise descending on them in Saint-Denis, that feeling that everything could again slip away at the last moment.
Paul O’Connell admitted that he was disappointed with how Ireland closed out the game in those final 10 minutes, but he was overlooking his own team’s input in halting the desperate last gamble of the French.
O’Driscoll did enough to rush Vincent Debaty into forcing his pass, Iain Henderson enveloped Damien Chouly at the back of a scrum, Ian Madigan found touch superbly from the Irish 22. All the little actions, the little details, added up to ensure Ireland did enough.
It was a celebration of O’Driscoll’s career, and the iconic outside centre signed off in style as he contributed hugely both physically and mentally. This was the certain end of something that has been magical, but quite possibly the start of something that can provide further joy.
The Schmidt revolution is not even a season old, but he and his players have delivered.