DONAL LENIHAN: Enjoy this — there’s a Puma pummelling coming next

After months of speculation and endless debate, now we know. 

This outstanding victory over France, forged in the most demanding of circumstances with the loss of the two principal leaders, captain Paul O’Connell and tactical director Johnny Sexton, has opened up the more negotiable side of the World Cup draw for Joe Schmidt’s heroic men.

Given a choice between meeting New Zealand or Argentina at this stage of the tournament, there are no prizes for guessing which route you would wish to take. Having achieved the primary objective in topping our pool for the second consecutive time at a World Cup, the big question now is at what cost.

If the inspirational O’Connell has to end his stellar international career on this note, it will be cruel in the extreme but, at least, he can do so proud in the fact that when his players were faced with the greatest adversity they rose as one, in the image of their monumental leader, to deliver one of the gutsiest performances ever produced by an Irish side.

This was supposedly the fittest, strongest and best prepared French side to ever compete at a World Cup - and remember we have never managed to beat them on this stage, having lost out comprehensively to them at the 1995, 2003 and 2007 events. Yet by the end of this one, they were a disorganised rabble, beaten into submission by an Irish machine that refused to yield an inch throughout a captivating game.

Having absorbed the implications of the loss of O’Connell and Sexton at the half time break, Ireland came out and blew the French away in those crucial, championship minutes after half time. The reward for that was instantaneous, a brilliantly manufactured try from Rob Kearney.

Strike moves, power plays, call them what you like. The discipline shown by Ireland in not showing their full hand through four World Cup warm up games along with three pool encounters in the tournament itself, especially when things got uncomfortably tight against Italy, displayed remarkable powers of restraint.

Yet they were there all the time. The first was introduced off a line-out deep in Ireland’s half with a sumptuous ball off the top from the ubiquitous Peter O Mahony. Ian Madigan and Robbie Henshaw, with a beautifully disguised inside ball, put Tommy Bowe through the hole that Schmidt had guaranteed would appear only for Keith Earls to drop the scoring pass.

Seven points left behind in a contest that has been unnervingly tight over the last four years seemed disastrous. Yet Earls and everyone else just dusted themselves down and moved on.

When another set piece opportunity presented itself early in the second half, this time off an attacking scrum, Bowe was once again put through a predetermined hole and although held up, the foundation was laid for a game changing try from Rob Kearney.

Massive credit is due to Ian Madigan for the role he played in the creation of those two line breaks.

The majority of his previous appearances off the bench have come mostly in the final quarter with Ireland well in the ascendancy and in control of the game.

This time, with Sexton having to depart after 25 minutes, asked questions of an entirely different kind and the Leinster man delivered in spades, both from the hand and the boot. This was his finest hour, delivered when the need was greatest.

Not far behind was the giant Iain Henderson who not only carried with his customary power but sent the French hurtling backwards with remarkable regularity whether in possession or not. He even produced another trade mark, pick and carry, when he tucked French scrum half Sebastian Tillous-Borde under his arm and tossed him back yards with disdain.

Even his own players stopped and stared in wonderment. O’Connell has big boots to fill but Henderson did him proud. Having negotiated and moved on from the loss of O’Connell and Sexton, to then lose O’Mahony who assumed the leadership role in word and deed, despite the fact that the armband was passed on to Jamie Heaslip, should have been crippling. Yet once again, Ireland absorbed the blow with Chris Henry stepping forward off the bench to fill the breach.

Despite all the injury setbacks, the manner with which Ireland proceeded to win the key battles at the scrum, lineout where they were totally dominant, the breakdown and in defence, was remarkable.

As a collective the back row were magnificent with Sean O’Brien delivering his best performance since those debilitating shoulder reconstructions.

The only worry on that front is a potential citing for a punch on Pascal Pape early in the game. Heaslip too was superb in contesting for turnovers.

Immense praise too for the Irish midfield, and Henshaw in particular, who was like a man possessed in that remarkable second half performance. Whether carrying, contesting at the breakdown, counter-rucking, making line breaks or in smashing opposition players in the tackle, he enjoyed his finest hour in a green shirt.

To see the massive Mathieu Bastareaud withdrawn from action with 18 minutes left was an admission that the bludgeon didn’t work and a different approach was required. Too late for that, however, with the French bench making nothing like the impact enjoyed by their Irish counterparts.

Once again the smarter coach has delivered in a key game. Schmidt now follows Michael Cheika, Eddie Jones and Warren Gatland in this tournament in making the difference in a game of equals. That said and while acknowledging that getting the tactical approach spot on is crucial in contests as tight as this, it was the character, belief, doggedness and unwavering commitment in the face of calamitous injury from each and every Irish player that swung this titanic battle Ireland’s way.

It was always likely that the elements missing in the flat win over Italy last week - the intensity at the breakdown, improved line speed in defence, physicality in the contact - would always reappear. However it was the will and mental strength when key players began to fall like flies that won this absorbing game for Ireland.

Right now we have what we wanted but the injuries that were always likely to visit our door at some stage will pose a problem against Argentina. They are, once again a serious force to be reckoned with and wouldn’t have cared one hoot whether they were going to face Ireland or France in their quarter-final.

I am sure they will also perceive it as some sort of slight that Ireland wanted them at all costs in next weekend’s clash rather that New Zealand but that’s an issue for another day.

Right now the most important thing is the extra days rest that this historic victory has bought the team for this was one of the most physically draining and demanding tests Ireland have played in a long time.

The World Cup captures the imagination of the French players in a way that the Six Nations has failed to do for some time now.

With an extended work load between club and country that tournament has become a bit of a chore, an element of chaos over charm.

That is why beating them in the manner Ireland did yesterday makes it all the sweeter.

Ireland set themselves a number of goals coming into this tournament, not least, topping the pool and making the quarter final.

Injury apart, everything has gone to plan.

Enjoy this as the next challenge against the Pumas is likely to prove even more demanding.

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