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Full-time: France 17-17 Ireland
14.51 – Take a deep breath and gird your loins, folks; Here we go:
Ireland - Kearney, Bowe, Earls, D’Arcy, Trimble, Sexton, Murray; Healy, Best, Ross, O’Callaghan, O’Connell (c), Ferris, O’Brien, Heaslip.
France - Poitrenaud, Clerc, Rougerie, Fofana, Malzieu, Trinh-Duc, Parra; Oux, Szarzewski, Mas, Pape, Maestri, Dusatoir (c), Bonnaire, Harinordoquy.
The slightly unwieldy half-back pairing of Murray and Sexton is again favoured over the two all-provincial options, while the back row triumvirate of Ferris, O’Brien and Heaslip remains unchanged. Ireland can take heart in the absence of Medard, Servat and Picamoles from the French starting line-up, but concerns remain over the threat posed by a heavyweight backline that includes blow-dried giant Aurelien Rougerie and snake-hipped wing Julien Malzieu.
A win for Ireland would raise the possibility of a Six Nations title challenge, while victory for France would set Les Bleus on course for a Grand Slam decider with Wales in Cardiff.
14.51 – Please stand for the French national anthem:
15.01 – Sexton assumes centre stage. A couple of bounces, crouches… and pops a kick to the left corner of the French 22.
A box-kick gives Ireland their first taste of possession…
15.05 – Frantic box-kick ping-pong has given way a spell of concerted French effort.
Vincent Clerc is dumped by a tackle from Cian Healy. He receives some attention on the deck before trotting back into position.
15.10 – An turnover in midfield yields a scrum and an offensive platform on which Ireland can build an attack. Collecting the ball at the base of the scrum, Murray sends the a pass towards the left flank.
Three phases later, possession is back with France. Szarzewski gets a little overambitious, however, and streams forward into contact. He’s smothered by the Irish pack and penalised for failing to release the ball.
The result is Ireland’s first penalty of the game… which Sexton sends hooking metres wide of the left post. A shocking attempt.
15.14 – Still rueing Sexton’s spurned opportunity, Ireland infringe at the breakdown. A grateful Trinh-Duc – kicking with the assistance of a following wind – punts a kick into the left corner.
Claiming the resulting lineout with ease, France send possession swinging from left-t0-right across the field. Their momentum sapped by some sterling interference from Ireland, Trinh-Duc is driven to launching a garryowen in the direction of Rob Kearney.
Under pressure, he leaps to claim and clear the danger.
15.17 – TRY to Ireland! Out of nothing, Tommy Bowe has the first try of the game.
A loose pass from Rougerie in midfield is anticipated by Bowe, who opted to charge free of the defensive line rather than cover wide on the right touchline. Casting his head about in disbelief, half-anticipating a blow of the whistle, he canters under the posts and touches down. He literally cannot believe his luck.
Sexton’s conversion, which sails over, is met by total silence.
France 0-7 France
15.22 – Buoyed by that opening try, the Irish pack begins to flex its muscles. Looking somewhere between shell-shocked and bemused, France are granted a lifeline when Dave Pearson, today’s orange-clad referee, penalises Ireland for going off their feet at the breakdown.
The result is a lineout, which in turn yields a French scrum in midfield.
15.27 – A dominant scrummaging performance sends France rolling into the Irish half. The tempo increases when a “sublime” (T. Ward) pass from Trinh-Duc releases a rampaging Imanol Harinordoquy into the Irish 22.
Anxious to prevent the ball reaching the left wing of an enormous French overlap, Ireland interfere at the breakdown and concede a penalty, by far the lesser of two evils.
Parra, perched at a slight angle in front of the Irish posts, sends his effort spinning over.
France 3-7 Ireland
15.30 – Another moment of indiscipline from France (Thierry Dusatoir has just received a stern talking to from Dave Pearson), grants Sexton another attempt on goal.
Memories of his earlier misfire well and truly banished, this one bisects the uprights.
France 3-10 Ireland
15.33 – Ooh la la! Ireland come within a whisker of a second intercept try when Tommy Bowe charges forward to fling a hand between Morgan Parra and Rougerie. The crowd give the Northerner a hearty booing, but he didn’t slap it out of the air – he had the tryline in mind.
15.35 – Another devastating French scrum sends the Irish pack wheeling backwards in the centre of the field. The result is a second penalty to France.
At the very limit of his capablility, Parra whoomps a kick goalwards. It seems to spend an eternity in the air before just squeaking over the crossbar.
France 6-10 Ireland
15.40 – Ireland concede a penalty when Cian Healy barges into Vincent Clerc from the most offside of offside positions. He had his arms raised – “Who, me?” – as he made contact with the winger, but no one – unfriendly Parisian crowd included – is buying it.
He’s lucky not to receive a yellow card, doubly so when Parra’s kick is carved well right of the posts.
15.42 – Ireland’s defensive strategy amounts to an enormous gamble played at the outer limits of the offside rule. Thus far effective, there are signs Pearson has begun to tire of the frequency with which Irish jerseys are materialising in unexpected places.
15.47 – TRY to Ireland! Rising quickly from a collision on the right wing, Tommy Bowe lengthens his stride and charges into space. A blue shirt blocking his path, he lobs a chip towards the tryline and runs to claim on the second bounce. It looks like he’s going to be caught, but a dummy pass to Kearney – the fullback lurking over his left shoulder – grants him a precious metre of space.
An absolutely spectacular try.
Sexton’s effort, from the right touchline, glances off the near post but spins over.
France 6-17 Ireland
15.53 – Half-time:
Ireland, or should that be Tommy Bowe, troubled the French line on precisely two occasions, for which they received a generous 14-point return. The result is an Irish lead (11 points!) utterly unprecedented in this fixture’s recent history. In defence, they’ve walked a fine line between physicality and overenthusiasm, but it’s proven hugely effective so far.
“We’re flooding through to make the hits. France came expecting one thing, but we’ve delivered something completely different.” – Conor O’Shea
“Watching Irish rugby very upsetting, because how can you compare this defence, what they’re doing at the ruck, with what they did two or three weeks ago against Wales?” – George Hook
15.56 – FACTOID: Interesting…
Time to “keep knocking the cock,” as Brent Pope would have it.
15.59 – We’re back underway, France casting the ball at speed from left-to-right across the Irish line. They’re going in search of space on the wings, but Clerc lasts all of two seconds before he’s dragged into touch.
16.02 – Poitrenaud is felled by a mammoth hit from Andrew Trimble, effectively bringing a sustained period of French pressure to an end, but there are signs – ominous signs – of life within the ranks of the home side.
16.08 – Like a reedy daddy longlegs trapped in mortal combat with a windowpane, Ireland bounce and buzz across an unbroken line of blue shirts…
16.05 – Ireland concede a penalty on the left wing for – surprise, surprise – drifting offside at the breakdown.
Morgan Parra struts over to Dave Pearson, nods, smiles in the direction of the posts and… flips an effort inside the right post.
Such arrogance. Love it.
France 9-17 Ireland
16.48 – Cronin’s penalty finds Irish arms, but a knock-on – conceded nearly immediately – hands a final, desperate chance to Les Bleus.
Lifting the ball from the base of a scrum, Harinordoquy breaks all of ten metres before offloading to Malzieu, then Poitenaud. For a moment, it looks as is Fate has conspired to deliver the cruellest of blows, but that lone blue shirt is nudged into touch.
With 83 minutes on the clock, Dave Pearson calls a halt to proceedings.
17.32 – TRY to France! Poitrenaud claims a high ball and pirouettes clear of an Irish challenge, then another… then another! By the time he drives into contact, the Irish line at sixes and sevens, he’s been joined by a handful of teammates. The result is quick ball, a second, equally incisive, break from Thierry Dusatoir. Seconds later, it’s Fofana – emerging from a contested ruck with ball-in-hand – who completes the hat-trick with a lightning fast break along the left touchline.
Kearney arrives a split-second too late to force the inside-centre out of play. Somewhat inexplicably, Pearson sends the decision upstairs. No need.
Parra’s conversion drifts wide and right.
France 14-17 Ireland
16.18 – The renewed sense of dynamism France have brought to bear is beginning to take its toll. Ireland, tempted into infringement at the breakdown, concede another penalty.
Parra, a long way from the posts, sends a low effort gliding over the bar.
France 17-17 Ireland
16.19 – Ryan joins the fray in place of O’Callaghan.
Ouch! Conor Murray looks certain to be withdrawn after hyperextending his knee – footage not for the sqeamish. He receives a modest round of applause as he’s replaced by Eoin Redden.
16.22 – Some shenanigans from Sean O’Brien – underlining, perhaps, the extent to which he’s not an international No7 – allow France a foothold in the Irish half.
Making full use of their set-piece superiority, Les Bleus claim a lineout and send a maul rolling away towards the border of the 22.
16.27 – A spell of accurate, coordinated passing from Ireland is rewarded with a lineout six metres from the French line. With accuracy at a premium, the delivery sails high and wide of O’Connell. It’s claimed by a blue shirt.
16.28 – Peter O’Mahony replaces heroic man-among-men Sean O’Brien.
16.30 – The misty rain has mutated into a more virulent, rugby-hating strain of airborne moisture.
16.34 – Kearney beats Harinodoquy to claim another high ball and bounce away into the French half. On the front foot, Ireland sling a series of passes to left wing. Wrong-footed by a telegraphed pass from Jamie Heaslip, Earls is reefed into touch.
Picamoles replaces Bonnaire; O’Gara replaces D’Arcy (he’ll switch places Sexton).
16.38 – Role-reversal now, with France building on a lineout to troubled the Irish line. Marshalling his troops, Parra directs Beauxis (Trinh-Duc’s replacement) back into the pocket and dispatches a laser-guided pass.
Overanxious to lift his drop-goal attempt over the onrushing defence, he sends the ball skimming away into touch.
16.41 – Our minute of respite at an end, France return to maraud the Irish line. Beauxis is again favoured for the drop goal, but his dillying and/or dallying allows Stephen Ferris to flap the ball clear!
16.44 – Frustrated, France set about battering a path to the tryline. Dragged this way and that, Ireland retain their shape, their discipline, and win a possible decisive defensive penalty.
Harinordoquy can be seen cursing, flinging an impotent fist punch at nothing in particular.
16.54 – Full-time: France 17-17 Ireland
A draw! That wasn’t in the script at all…
Ireland will leave Paris with mixed feelings.
“DON’T MISUNDERSTAND WHAT I’M SAYING!… This was not a team that defended off its line; this was not a team that flooded the breakdown. Somewhere over the last two weeks, they’ve got their act together.” – (A usprisingly upbeat) George Hook
A final thought from Des Bishop: