Rob Kearney and Conor Murray scored second-half tries as Ireland secured an invaluable 24-9 win over France in Cardiff on Sunday. CRAIG LEWIS reports.
The hard-fought victory enabled Ireland to top Pool D, and as a result they’ll avoid facing the All Blacks in the quarter-finals, instead earning a date with Argentina, while France are now set to tackle the reigning world champs.
Although Ireland will be mighty pleased with the result in Cardiff, celebrations will be tempered after key players Johnny Sexton, Paul O'Connell and Peter O'Mahony all picked up seemingly serious injuries. Keith Earls also took a knock, while Sean O'Brien was guilty of throwing a punch, which escaped the attention of the referees, but is unlikely to be missed by the citing commissioner.
During a fierce and physical start to the clash, which saw the medical staff on both sides being kept extremely busy, France got the better of the initial exchanges. However, they missed two early penalties, with Frédéric Michalak putting one kick wide, while the impressive Scott Spedding struck the post with a long-range effort.
By contrast, Sexton knocked over a penalty in the 13th minute, although Spedding made up for his earlier miss with a superb 50m effort.
The two goal-kickers then traded another penalty before Ireland suffered a massive blow midway through the first half when Sexton was forced from the field with a groin injury. The influential flyhalf looked devastated as he left the field, and there will be real concern over his availability for the quarter-final, and perhaps the remainder of the tournament.
Nevertheless, Sexton’s replacement Ian Madigan showed great composure to slot a tricky penalty soon after coming on, handing Ireland a 9-6 lead that they held onto until the break, despite a late first-half surge from France.
Then things went from bad to worse on the injury front for Ireland when O'Connell had to be stretchered off the field with an apparent serious hamstring injury that could well have ended his World Cup aspirations.
Although it had been an action-packed opening stanza, much of the play took place between either 22, with few very clear cut try-scoring opportunities. Ireland did create the best effort when wing Tommy Bowe broke free and looked set to put Earls away, but the centre dropped the ball with the tryline at his mercy.
Ireland would have the first try of the match, though, with centre Robbie Henshaw sparking the second half into life when he made a beautiful break in the 49th minute, which ultimately created the opportunity for fullback Rob Kearney to crash over.
Yet Ireland’s injury woes would rage on as O'Mahony had to be stretchered from the field with a nasty-looking knee injury, and in the context of these disruptions, this victory must be seen as even more impressive.
Replacement Morgan Parra briefly brought France back into the match with a 64th-minute penalty to reduce the deficit to five points, but Ireland effectively sealed the result when scrumhalf Conor Murray scored against the posts not long after.
Madigan added a second penalty in the 77th minute to put the finishing touches on a brave victory.
France – Penalties: Scott Spedding (2), Morgan Parra.
Ireland – Try: Rob Kearney, Conor Murray. Conversion: Ian Madigan. Penalties: Johnny Sexton (2), Madigan (2).
France – 15 Scott Spedding, 14 Noa Nakaitaci, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Brice Dulin, 10 Frédéric Michalak, 9 Sébastien Tillous-Borde, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Damien Chouly, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (c), 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Pascal Papé, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Eddy Ben Arous.
Subs: 16 Benjamin Kayser, 17 Vincent Debaty, 18 Nicolas Mas, 19 Alexandre Flanquart, 20 Bernard le Roux, 21 Morgan Parra, 22 Rémi Talès, 23 Alexandre Dumoulin.
Ireland – 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Keith Earls, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Dave Kearney, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Seán O'Brien, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Paul O'Connell (c), 4 Devin Toner, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy.
Subs: 16 Richardt Strauss, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Nathan White, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Chris Henry, 21 Eoin Reddan, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Luke Fitzgerald.
Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images