The verdict on the decisive Pool D game between France and Ireland in Cardiff
Ireland lost their two most influential players in the first half, Johnny Sexton and Paul O’Connell going off injured, but showed intelligence, composure and commitment to beat France in an incredible match at the Millennium Stadium. The scoreline suggests a comfort that was in no way evident during a hugely physical contest, but second-half tries from Rob Kearney and Conor Murray proved the difference as France couldn’t find a way over the line. So Ireland will now play Argentina on Sunday and France will meet New Zealand on Saturday night in the World Cup quarter-finals.
Ferocious intensity – These two sides went at it hammer and tongs from the first whistle. The line speed of the French defence meant Ireland had to operate under intense pressure in confined spaces, but the men in green did just the same to their opponents with their organisation. The physicality was immense, the sound of some of the tackles reaching the stands as the likes of Yoann Maestri, Louis Picamoles, Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien put in huge hits and Iain Henderson added a muscular presence in the second half. It may not have been a try-fest but it was utterly absorbing none the less as both teams tried to find a millimetre of space through which to attack. The obvious downside of such physicality is the number of players who had to go off injured.
Fans, fans, fans – Green was undoubtedly the prominent colour in the Millennium Stadium stands and Irish support throughout this tournament has been nothing short of phenomenal. The French made themselves heard, too, and mention must go to the pocket of fans who entertained train passengers en route from Manchester to Cardiff with several renditions of La Marseillaise. The cacophony of noise in the stadium was incredible – but it was brilliant that they quietened for kicks at goal.
Ian Madigan – There have been plenty of question marks about whether Madigan can guide Ireland from fly-half but he answered many of them here. He is not the same type of player as Johnny Sexton and Ireland may lack some of the older man’s control and game sense with Madigan at ten, but he brings a spark to the back-line. He has a superb range of passes, jinked round defenders with his footwork and tested the France with chip kicks over the top as he played very flat. Special mention, too, to Tommy Bowe, who was outstanding with his kick-chase and picked some great lines.
Look smart – Conor Murray’s sharp thinking to touch the ball down against the post protector sealed this victory for Ireland. They had been pressurising the French line and he showed great awareness to get the ball down quickly.
Unfitting ends – It was bad enough for Ireland when Johnny Sexton had to leave the pitch injured after less than half an hour, but the sight of Paul O’Connell being carted off on a stretcher at half-time was even worse. The leg injury that led to his departure – sustained as Ireland defended waves of French attackers – looked serious and his immediate reaction suggested the same. Such an iconic figure deserves a more fitting end to their international career.
That dropped pass – Tommy Bowe seared through the France defence around the half-hour mark and a try looked a certainty when he fired out the ball to Keith Earls. Instead, Earls dropped the ball and the chance was gone. Yes, Brice Dulin was covering across but had Earls held onto that pass, he had space in front of him and would have backed himself to score.
Caught on camera – The list of absentees could grow longer for Joe Schmidt should Sean O’Brien be cited for an off-the-ball punch to Pacal Pape’s stomach picked up by the TV cameras. No need for such acts.
22 – The number of tackles missed by France, double that of Ireland. They also made nearly double the amount of tackles as Ireland – 181 to 97.
3 – The number of turnovers made by Sean O’Brien, more than any other player.
74 – The number of metres made by Rob Kearney, more than any other.
France: S Spedding; N Nakaitaci, 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 43-48, 65), G Guirado (B Kayser 59), R Slimani (N Mas 63), P Pape (A Flanquart 74), Y Maestri, T Dusautior (capt), D Chouly (B le Roux 55), L Picamoles.
Pens: Spedding 2, Parra.
Ireland: R Kearney; T Bowe, K Earls (L Fitzgerald 62), R Henshaw, D Kearney; J Sexton (I Madigan 25), C Murray (E Reddan 77); C Healy (J McGrath 57), R Best (R Strauss 74), M Ross (N White 65), D Toner, P O’Connell (capt, I Henderson ht), P O’Mahony (C Henry 55), S O’Brien, J Heasip.
Tries (2): R Kearney, Murray. Con: Madigan. Pens: Sexton 2, Madigan 2.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Man of the Match: Sean O’Brien