France 26 Ireland 21
Vincent Clerc proved Ireland’s nemesis yet again as France survived a remarkable second-half fightback to edge a thrilling RBS 6 Nations clash.
Clerc completed a stunning first-half hat-trick as Les Bleus made a rampaging start to the match, giving no indication of the drama that was to unfold
France attacked Geordan Murphy’s wing mercilessly and their ruthless streak paid off with the Leicester back exposed on two occasions.
Clerc was the beneficiary and needed no second invitation to raise his strike rate to 20 tries from 30 caps.
It was the lightning-fast Toulouse winger, possibly the best player in Europe on current form, who broke Irish hearts with his injury-time winner at Croke Park in last year’s Six Nations.
That score effectively denied Ireland the Grand Slam and Clerc was equally predatory in the rivals’ pool game at the World Cup, plundering a brace of tries as France prevailed 25-3.
Cedric Heymans also crossed while Jean Baptiste Elissalde kicked seven points to put France in the driving seat – until their second half implosion.
Coach Marc Lievremont replaced prop Lionel Faure and hooker Dimitri Szarzewski with William Servat and Julien Brugnaut early in the second half and their scrum disintegrated as a result.
Ireland, kept in touch by the kicking of Ronan O’Gara who finished with 11 points, took full advantage as the confidence drained from their opponents.
They dominated the forward battle after the interval, forcing a penalty try with a string of big scrums before David Wallace finished a drive from his pack.
Heading into the final quarter Ireland looked capable of registering a first win in Paris since 2000 but France escaped by the skin of the teeth.
The spirited performance will have eased the pressure on coach Eddie O’Sullivan, who has been heavily criticised since the World Cup, but France were undoubtedly the architects of their collapse.
It was an astonishing finish that contrasted markedly with Ireland’s first-half woes.
Lame tackling saw Aurelien Rougerie waved through in the fourth minute, the Clermont winger taking a quick tap close to his line and breaking through.
He slipped through three tackles before being caught by the cover but openside Thierry Dusautoir was at the breakdown in a flash and Ireland infringed.
Jean Baptiste Elissalde pushed the simple chance wide and France’s ominous opening continued with Cedric Heymans almost smashing his way over.
A dashing break from Andrew Trimble halted the early French assault, however, with some slick interchange ending when Wallace was pounded into the turf by Szarzewski.
Ireland created an overlap on the right that full-back Girvan Dempsey wasted with a delayed pass as France met their opponents’ flourish with some ferocious defence.
Keeping the ball to good effect, the Irish continued to make inroads only to be outmuscled at a breakdown and pay a heavy price.
In a move that evoked memories of Clerc’s try in the World Cup group game, Elissalde side-footed the ball onto the right wing where only Denis Leamy was stationed.
Blindside flanker Leamy did not have the legs to outpace Clerc to the ball and he galloped.
Elissalde converted and Ireland’s woes deepened four minutes later when Clerc completed his double.
Murphy drifted off his wing to tackle David Skrela even through the Irish cover had lined him up and seeing the overlap, the Stade Francais fly-half supplied the scoring pass to Clerc.
Ireland responded to the early setback with an encouraging passage of play that was ruined by an ill-judged long pass from Brian O’Driscoll and a poor handling error by O’Gara.
A pair of O’Gara penalties reduced the deficit to 12-6 but in the 37th minute Clerc’s sensational afternoon just got better.
Toulouse team-mate Heymans created the space with an arched run before handing Clerc a routine finish.
Dazzling footwork swept O’Driscoll into space in the 46th minute but the Ireland skipper was alone and France were able to turn the ball over
There was more than a hint of luck about France’s fourth try as Elissalde’s chip through deflected off O’Driscoll and through his legs into the path of Heymans.
Only Dempsey and O’Gara were covering back but the full-back showed them a clean pair of heals and Elissalde converted.
Ireland struck back in unusual circumstances by pulverising France at a series of five-metre scrums and referee Nigel Owens awarded a penalty try that was improved by O’Gara.
The French pack had gone to sleep, caving in for a second time in the 62nd minute when openside David Wallace powered over from close range.
Buoyed by their ongoing success up front, Ireland continued to pound away and made huge inroads into the backpedalling French.
A long-range penalty from O’Gara slashed the deficit to 26-21 and when Reddan broke free French hearts were in their mouths.
Ireland surged ahead and looked set to land the decisive blow but Heymans swept back to cover a Rob Kearney chip and Les Bleus were saved.