Ireland 24 France 9: Let us delay talk of Argentina and quarter-finals for a moment, this victory over the French needs to be savoured.
This was a game that had been talked about for three years, since the day Declan Kidney and Brian O’Driscoll pondered the World Cup draw in a London art gallery and looked ahead to a tournament in which neither head coach nor captain would feature.
It was a contest that pitted two Six Nations rivals with so little to choose between them that only nine points had separated their four previous meetings, two of which were draws.
And it was an encounter where the brutality of the collisions and intensity of the tackles were clearly signposted.
This match was meant to be a tough and close meeting of minds and bodies and it duly delivered, at a cost to both teams.
For France, the defeat consigned Philippe Saint-Andre to runner-up spot in Pool D and only six days to prepare for a last eight clash with defending champions New Zealand in a rematch of the 2011 final.
For Ireland, a second consecutive pool-topping campaign that brought a first ever defeat of France at the World Cup, came at the cost of three influential leaders to injury, and the end of captain Paul O’Connell’s Test career.
Head coach Joe Schmidt saw his skipper depart on a stretcher at the end of the first half with a severe hamstring tear.
It left O’Connell writing in agony, his tournament over unless a scan today produces completely unexpected good news.
Fly-half Johnny Sexton had departed 15 minutes earlier after taking a big hit from Louis Picamoles that left him heaving on the Millennium Stadium turf having moments earlier required treatment on his groin.
And in the 55th minute, Ireland had to cope with the loss of Peter O’Mahony.
Losing any of those three would have been a severe blow to Schmidt’s plans but seeing them all disappear down the tunnel might have spelled calamity on a grand scale.
Instead, the reaction of those they left behind and the players that replaced that injured trio was the triumph of the evening and quite possibly the making of Schmidt’s group of players.
They had lost leaders and seen new ones take their place while those direct positional replacements more than filled the vacated boots.
It was epic, heroic stuff. Ian Madigan picked up where Sexton left off, perhaps even lifting Ireland’s tempo at out-half and matching his predecessor’s two penalties before slotting one of his two conversion attempts from second-half tries for Rob Kearney and Conor Murray.
The French never stood a chance in a game that Ireland had no right to win.
It was one of those evenings and no surprise to Schmidt, who had earlier credited the leadership qualities of vice-captain Jamie Heaslip, hooker Rory Best and scrum-half Murray as well as praising Madigan, sub flanker Chris Henry and O’Connell’s replacement Iain Henderson before paying tribute to his entire squad.
“I think they’ve demonstrated again that they can hang in and they can do a little bit more than that as well,” Schmidt said.
“Robbie Henshaw...was second top tackler, he was second top ball carrier. I just felt he had another enormous game and took another step forward off very little rugby, and you can say that about a number of players.
“I think if you do go back and have another look Chris Henry did some really good stuff when he came on and even up front as well, we know the quality of Jack McGrath, but what about those scrums in the last 20 minutes with Nathan White and Jack McGrath in there, and Richardt Strauss as well when he came on late in the game we still had another really good scrum to really challenge them.
“It’s hard to single out individuals when it’s such a collective effort. I’d agree with Jamie, it was very much a 31-man effort because a lot of guys had helped try to prepare them and make sure that they were ready to go.” For all the relief at avoiding the All Blacks next Saturday, beating Argentina a day later will require similar heroics.
The bruises of yesterday will fade and the tears will dry but the memory of the character and heart that produced that performance should live on for much longer and provide a springboard to even better days ahead. For this was a match in which Ireland’s heroes really came of age.
R Kearney; T Bowe, K Earls (L Fitzgerald, 62), R Henshaw, D Kearney; J Sexton (I Madigan, 25), C Murray; C Healy (J McGrath, 57), R Best (R Strauss, 73), M Ross (N White, 65); D Toner, P O’Connell – captain (I Henderson, h-t); P O’Mahony (C Henry, 55), S O’Brien, J Heaslip.
Replacement not used:
S Spedding; N Nakataici, M Bastareaud (A Dumoulin, 62), W Fofana, B Dulin; F Michalak (R Tales, 55), S Tillous-Borde (M Parra, 55); E Ben Arous (V Debaty, 41-48 & 65), G Guirado (B Kayser, 58), R Slimani (N Mas, 63); P Pape (A Flanquart, 73), Y Maestri; T Dusautoir – captain, D Chouly (B Le Roux, 55), L Picamoles.
Nigel Owens (Wales)
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