Saturday, February 09, 2008

Late Irish Revival Can't Stop France

Six Nations Game 5 - France vs Ireland (26-21)

Ireland started brightly with quick ruck ball, camping in the French 22 for 2-3 minutes. But then just when they were expecting France to kick, Aurelian Rougerie steamed up the middle, the ruck formed and France had a chance of a penalty - which Elissalde pushed wide.

Bernard Jackman's first lineout was a disaster, going to French hands. Les Bleus worked the ball across the field one way, then the other, and if it wasn't for a forward pass, they would have scored.

Around 10 minutes, Ireland were looking for points in the French 22 after a lineout, with several phases well put together. Rucks, passes, pick and drive, until Eoin Reddan threw it wide, then back into midfield. Things only stopped when Ireland knocked on close to the line.

It was still tight until France turned over Irish ball, which was hacked ahead and Vincent Clerc [right] flew up the wing in his golden boots, gathered safely and slid over for a lovely try. David Skrela converted and the home side were 7-0 up.

Shortly after, France were caught infringing and Ronan O'Gara stepped up for three points, overtaking Neil Jenkins' Six Nations all-time points score, (with only Jonny Wilkinson still in front). That put Ireland on 7-3.

Then after the restart, Ireland were caught napping and Clerc did it again with another blistering run - this time Skrela missed the conversion but French tails were up, 12-3. In the 23rd minute, Ireland had an opportunity when they got an attacking lineout 5m out, but Lionel Nallet's challenge was excellent.

Just before the half hour, O'Gara punted over a penatly to bring them up to 12-6. But Clerc struck for a hat-trick, scored with a jubilant dive, just before half time and Ireland were left wondering what to do - I'd hate to think what Eddie O'Sullivan would have said at the break, going into the dressing room 19-6 down.

There was plenty of action but few points as the second half began. Then in the 49th minute, France had a scrum on the half way, the No. 8 broke away and it was kicked, partially charged down, and C├ędric Heymans [left], another boy in golden boots, ran in for a try under the posts with the Irish defence in shreds. The conversion brought the score up to 26-6. The French fans were in good voice, with the Marseillaise ringing out around the stadium.

At 52 minutes, Ireland got another penalty and kicked to the corner. Their previous lineouts hadn't been doing well, with Jackman's throws more often than not arriving in French hands. This time they got possession and managed to work themselves up to within a couple of metres of the line, then recycled and drove again, crawling towards the line over several phases. Then the Irish won a Scrum V. It was reset a couple of times as the French went down once the drive was on. And a second time. Third time, the Irish front row scrummaged the French off the park and Ref Nigel Owens had no choice but to award a penalty try. O'Gara's conversion was easy, and the score was back at 26-13 with 22 minutes to go.

The Irish pack made a big drive after the catching restart. Then they spun it wide, chipped ahead but it was collected by Heymans instead of an Irish hand. Then Simon Best came on for Jackman after an injury, the Irish lineout was solid and the forwards drove on. David Wallace [right] was the man at the bottom of the heap and the TMO agreed the ball was grounded. But the conversion was missed, so the scores stood at 26-18. Suddenly, the Irish were playing to their strengths (forwards) rather than running.

In the 65th minute, Clerc went into touch as he caught a bouncer, and the Irish lineout was good again. Then the Irish pack had another opportunity and drove up, and passed out to the backs - but the pass to the wing was too long and it went into touch.

The Irish comeback continued point by point, when Ronan O'Gara punted another pentalty in the 75th minute, clawing it back to 26-21. Then crucially, Ireland won a penalty on the half way, and kicked for the corner. The lineout was taken and the Irish backs broke the French defensive line. They recycled again and made more ground. The forwards took it up from the 22, mauling and rucking for their lives. 7m short, it was flung wide, collected by a French hand and it went into touch - whistle blew.

So an incredible turnaround from the Irish in the second half, and they can be proud of themselves for that. France looked extremely dangerous, especially in the first half. Ironically, Vincent Clerc (Man of the Match with a hat-trick) was dropped from the French 22 earlier in the week, and only came back in after an injury to Julien Malzieu!

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