From the moment Ireland’s Call thundered out inside the Millennium Stadium it was obvious something special was in the air. Never had a chorus of anything but Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau reverberated under the roof of Cardiff’s iconic venue to such deafening levels.
The green hoards descended upon Cardiff to make this World Cup tie feel as though it was being played in Dublin. The irony is that there were undoubtedly more Irish fans here among the 72,163 attendance than would have been at the Aviva Stadium. And with the roof closed, the decibel levels rose to unprecedented levels.
“I can barely hear myself think,” quipped Jamie Heaslip as he strained to hear the questions in his pitch-side interview after the game.
Ireland expected commitment but what they got was a remarkable display of heroism in the face of cruel adversity as injuries took a terrible toll.
The fans had answered their country’s call and played their part in yet another memorable day in the Welsh capital, which has become a home from home for Irish rugby over the past decade.
Munster twice lifted the Heineken Cup here against French opposition, in 2006 against Biarritz and 2008 against Toulouse.
Leinster returned in 2011 to produce the most remarkable comeback in Heineken Cup Final history against Northampton Saints. And by then, Ireland had finally broken their intolerable 61-year wait to claim a Grand Slam.
Heaslip, a veteran of 84 Tests later added: “I’ve been lucky enough to play in some huge games for Leinster, Ireland and the British Lions but that atmosphere surpassed anything I’ve ever played in before.
“Both sets of fans were a credit to the game. At times our lungs were bursting and our legs were on fire but to hear the French chanting Allez Les Bleus and the Irish respond with Fields of Athenry and Ole Ole Ole was incredible. When you looked up during any break, all you could see was green. They were the 16th man who gave us a huge lift.
“It even started before the game when we were on the team bus coming in to the stadium through the crowds. I had flash backs of the Grand Slam game. It was unbelievable.” Of all those previous triumphs, none of those were in the face of such adversity as this given the loss two talismen before half-time.
The Millennium Stadium had hosted them all so it was with excitement and a hint of confidence that Irish fans arrived, ready to see two of Europe’s heavyweight go toe to toe.
And it was like sitting ringside at a world title bout in that opening 40 minutes, described as a “slug-fest” by Heaslip.
The ferocity of the tackle, the commitment of the charge and the unrelenting intensity of the breakdown was brutal yet utterly compelling. This was blood and thunder rugby at its best.
Spectators winced and groaned at every bone-jarring challenge but you could not take your eyes off these 30 players, these warriors, as they slugged it out for 12 rounds. All that was missing was the gloves.
Joe Schmidt had been building to his moment for the past six months. Everything they had done, every training session, each of their summer fixtures and even their pool games thus far were merely the hors d’oeuvres.
Ireland had never beaten France in the World Cup after defeats in 1995, 203 and 2007, all by 22 points or more. This was the moment Ireland had to peak and they did.
France looked out on their feet yet it was Ireland who suffered not just once, or even twice, but three times to injury.
First Jonathan Sexton limped off with groin injury though it was a jarring tackle by Louis Picamoles that finished him off. Enter Ian Madigan and the Dubliner emerged from the shadow of Sexton and stood tall in the full glare of World Cup rugby.
Ireland then had to walk past the prone figure of Paul O’Connell as they made their way to the dressing room at half-time, rubber-necking for news of their captain. They were to also lose the services of the outstanding Peter O’Mahony before the game was won.
The squad rallied, Irish fans celebrated but for this moment of glory, Ireland could yet pay a heavy price.
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