Ireland head coach Eddie O’Sullivan praised his players’ guts and determination after seeing them fall just short of a remarkable comeback win against France.
The Irish looked down and out when they slipped 26-6 in the 50th minute following Cedric Heymans’ try, but they recovered superbly and took the imploding hosts to the wire.
A penalty try, a score by David Wallace and a third Ronan O’Gara penalty brought Ireland to within touching distance of the French, who managed to hold on to secure a 26-21 victory and a second successive triumph in this season’s RBS 6 Nations Championship.
O’Sullivan hailed the team spirit shown by his side as they sought to recover from their poor first-half display.
“I feel France got out of jail,” he said.
“At 26-6, weaker individuals would have walked away and assumed it was over. But we kept believing we could win the game.
“We came back, kept our composure as a team, and we deserved better at the end of the day.
“It told me there is integrity in this team, that they are all honest workers who give 110% in a green shirt.
“We were unfortunate and I thought we played really well.”
Vincent Clerc’s sensational hat-trick of tries blew Ireland away in the first half, with the visitors managing just two O’Gara penalties in reply.
But the last 25 minutes belonged to the Irish, who were camped in enemy territory and looking extremely dangerous every time they pushed forward.
Of his side’s efforts in the tense last five minutes, O’Sullivan added: “I think we did all the right things, and the players were aware the clock was running down.
“We were trying to get the right field position, but we also tried to make France defend because we knew they were struggling. But we just couldn’t finish it off.”
Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll admitted some strong words by O’Gara in a team meeting on Friday inspired his players in the second half.
The Irish, and O’Sullivan in particular, have borne the brunt of heavy criticism following a dire World Cup campaign last year and a stuttering start to the Six Nations.
O’Driscoll refused to reveal what fly-half O’Gara had said but added: “We really felt we owed ourselves a performance and the coach a performance.
“He has stuck by us, because we didn’t deliver in September and October. That was the one thing we spoke about most this week, and I think we delivered in spades.
“When you lose a game, the initial feeling is disappointment. But when I think about it more, the overriding feeling now is huge pride in the team.”
France head coach Marc Lievremont was delighted to see his young side hold out in the face of an Ireland storm in those problematic final 20 minutes.
“We are proud of the way our players performed,” he said.
“We won but we suffered right until the last minute. We were punished for our mistakes and the same thing happened two years ago – France dominated at first and Ireland came back strong in the second half.
“The players will learn a lot from this but they showed a great will and desire.”
Lievremont’s decision to withdraw front-row forwards Lionel Faure and Dimitri Szarzewski at the start of the second half weakened the French pack and Ireland took advantage, butchering their opponents in the scrum and at the breakdown.
The France coach admitted he was alarmed at what happened, adding: “We dominated the scrum in the first half, but we didn’t conserve our efforts well enough.
“Seeing us go backwards in the scrum did not give me much pleasure and I am unhappy they scored their penalty try.
“This highlights our shortcomings in this department.”
Captain Lionel Nallet saved special words for the sensational Clerc, the scorer of five tries already in this season’s Six Nations.
“Scoring three tries is an excellent achievement, and that is superb for him,” said Nallet.
“I congratulate him and I thank him. It just shows how team spirit can be transmitted through to the players.”