After the farewell, will Ireland now fare well?

We have become programmed to expect the worst when we travel to Paris in the spring but mercifully this Irish team failed to read the script and accept the inevitable.

After the farewell, will Ireland now fare well?

This squad is made of sterner stuff, battle-hardened from countless Heineken Cup treks to the rugby strongholds of southern France and returning, more often that not, with the spoils.

This was the day when the national team finally reaped the rewards from the mental durability accumulated over those years of provincial achievement. The biggest plus of all, especially with a World Cup beginning to come into focus, is that Ireland closed out this heart-stopping contest with a callow group of youngsters on board. Yes, they were pushed to the brink and rode their luck at times but the fact they succeeded will deliver further benefits down the line.

Jack McGrath, Marty Moore, Iain Henderson and Ian Madigan were entrusted with that responsibility and played their part, none more so than the big Ulsterman when he drove French reserve scrum-half Jean-Marc Doussain yards backwards after France had engineered a ball against the head in the final scrum of the game.

What makes this Six Nations victory even more special is that it was achieved against a French side whose performance was unrecognisable from anything they produced in the tournament this season.

We knew there would be a reaction as a consequence of the vitriol they had been subjected to from all quarters and, in typical Gallic fashion, they found a display in keeping with the best tradition of the French game.

That it wasn’t enough to take the honours speaks volumes for this Irish side who will only get better for what they had to endure in the closing stages at the Stade de France. The immediate challenge for Joe Schmidt will be in finding someone to fill the yawning chasm left by Brian O’Driscoll now that his departure from the international stage has become reality. Replacing the aura created by his presence alone will prove impossible.

A word too for Italian wing Leonardo Sarto, whose crucial intercept try with 12 minutes left on the clock in Rome killed England’s momentum at a time when they looked certain to overhaul Ireland’s points differential. Had Ireland been forced to chase a win by seven points, it would have proved a step too far.

The difference between this Irish side and countless others was the sustained brilliance of the set-piece. That is why it would have been a travesty if the game was decided by a penalty in that harrowing last scrum when Ireland were put under enormous pressure. Referee Steve Walsh thought about awarding a penalty but when Doussain picked from the base, just prior to Henderson’s crucial intervention, Walsh resisted the temptation and Ireland escaped to victory.

France should have scored minutes earlier but Pascal Pape’s pass to Damien Chouly was clearly forward, even allowing for the most recent trend of ignoring such blatant breaches of the laws. TMO Gareth Simmonds took an inordinate time to make a judgement, adding even further to the tension in the stadium.

If ever a game was decided on character, desire, application and a commitment to the cause, then this was it. It was also decided on trust. Trust from Schmidt in the willingness to introduce the new green wave off the bench with 20 minutes still to play of the most competitive rugby they have ever faced in their fledgling careers.

It was Ireland’s resilience that really made the difference in the end. There is such clarity in their approach, it has generated a steely confidence that once they get a foothold in the opposition 22, they will score.

That precious commodity turned the first half on its head when two isolated visits yielded tries for Johnny Sexton and Andrew Trimble. But for two unbelievable misses by Sexton with the boot, Ireland would have led at half-time, yet they never allowed those misses sow a seed of doubt.

Au contraire. They came out after the break and just as they did against England at Twickenham, turned a half-time deficit into a winning position with a glorious 12 minutes of rugby that yielded 10 crucial points.

This was the point where the French team that had stumbled through the opening four games of the championship would have imploded. Not this time. Inspired by some scintillating rugby from a rejuvenated Mathieu Bastareaud — Leinster have been put on high alert for their Heineken Cup quarter-final visit to Toulon — along with Yoann Huget and Brice Dulin they refused to throw in the towel.

That is what makes this victory so special. Ireland have shown over the course of the last seven weeks that they have the capacity to play in a number of different ways. Against Wales they shut up shop and kicked the cover off the ball and played the territorial game. Against Scotland, Italy and, sporadically, on Saturday, they were devastating with ball in hand.

They have the ability to change tack mid-stream and press the accelerator once they sense the opposition are flagging. A key factor facilitating this is the quality of delivery at the breakdown. Every player, regardless of position, is acutely aware of the importance of their ball presentation in contact and that has bought Conor Murray vital seconds. He was outstanding on Saturday with his awareness and peripheral vision playing a vital role in Andrew Trimble’s crucial try.

Schmidt’s confidence in Trimble has been rewarded tenfold and his work-rate with and without the ball in this game was remarkable. During the week Schmidt described this Irish team thus: “They may not be thrill-seekers or frill-seekers, but they are very hard workers.”

Nobody has epitomised that quality better that Trimble, even if the ever-improving Devin Toner ran him a close second. He too has come of age in this championship.

When you consider that Tommy Bowe, Sean O’Brien, Donnacha Ryan, Simon Zebo, Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald and possibly even Stephen Ferris will be doing everything in their powers to earn a place in this team next season, Schmidt finds himself in a great place less than a year into his first international coaching appointment.

He has also shown vision and intelligence in the appointment of his backroom team, with forwards coach John Plumtree an inspired addition. His predecessor Gert Smal did a great job on his watch, but the big New Zealander has elevated Ireland’s forward play to a new level.

Fitting too that O’Driscoll, after the emotional roller coaster of the last 10 days, let down his guard and shed a tear in a touching exchange with RTÉ’s Clare McNamara immediately after the match. At that moment I suspect the entire country was in floods.

Given the heartache, pain and, at times, humiliation suffered at the hands of some great French teams in this city over the years, at last something to cherish for a long, long time.

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