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Ireland overpower France to avoid New Zealand in World Cup quarter-finals

It was always about avoiding the All Blacks – AAB duty, staying alive in the tournament for at least another week – and Ireland took delivery of that key to a place in the quarter-finals against the considerably lesser evil of Argentina here next Sunday. Win there – as they will be strongly favoured to do – and they can dream again of greater hell to come.

The losers have drawn the shortest straw in rugby, a quarter-final against the best team in the world in the same stadium on Saturday. But who would not want that challenge?

As their coach, Philippe St André, saw it afterwards, “New Zealand are favourites but in a game of rugby you never know. It’s important to stick together, it’s important to accept today we didn’t play well and we need to be ready for a huge, huge game against the All Blacks.”

Joe Schmidt made similar noises about Argentina. Soundly based though his summary of his opponents’ strengths are, he knows Ireland have got by far the better of the deal.

It was a day when France lurched between indiscipline and lethargy, lit up with the usual bursts of brilliance – except that there were not enough of them.

The expected onslaught of their imposing centres, Mathieu Bastareaud and Wesley Fofana, did not materialise. Nor did the aerial war Keith Earls had expected. This was a 24-9 victory hard won up the middle in adversity.

Ireland flirted with their passions, too, and almost certainly will miss the services of their otherwise outstanding servant here, Sean O’Brien, spotted in the first half (but not by the referee) sinking a right hand deep into the belly of Pascal Pape, who fell like a visiting heavyweight.

The air hung heavy with irony towards the end when the Leinster flanker was announced as man of the match. If “Rocky” O’Brien escapes a citing, M Pape will probably not want a rematch.

Adding to Ireland’s post-euphoria reality check will be considerations over the captain, Paul O’Connell, carted off on the break on a motorised stretcher (never a dignified look) with an upper hamstring injury that looks serious; and the earlier departure of Jonny Sexton, with an abductor problem, yet more than adequately replaced by Ian Madigan, who must live in the longest shadow in rugby. They had to do without their captain for the second 40 minutes – as well as Sexton’s boot and nous.

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So, there is plenty going on in the medical room for Schmidt to be worrying about in the days to come. For now he can take comfort in dodging the New Zealand bullet and celebrating another fine victory over France.

In their 94th contest Ireland scored their 32nd win over the French, the fifth duel on the spin without losing. With one more they will equal the sequence of six unbeaten that is buried in the archives of the Roaring Twenties. Yet in World Cup collisions France had won all three previous encounters, by margins of at least 22 points each time. So this victory is the measure of the turnaround in recent Irish fortunes and a fair summary of the difference now between them.

There is no Soldier’s Song these days to lift Irish spirits but Ireland’s Call did well enough, filling the roof-covered stadium here with a rolling tumult to follow the Marseillaise, still the most stirring anthem available for those of a patriotic bent.

The French should have had something to sing about twice in the first 10 minutes but Frédéric Michalak’s boot, from wide, then Scott Spedding’s from distance, let them down. Sexton, more composed, did not miss but he was soon gone, limping off after 25 minutes, replaced by Madigan but, in truth, irreplaceable.

Madigan, who had put 14 points on Romania, was superb. He did not let them down with a long-range penalty for 9-6 on the half-hour and he would serve them well again at the end.

Nerves replaced discipline and focus. Errors flowed unaided from sweating hands. Within five minutes Keith Earls butchered a golden opportunity when he bungled Tommy Bowe’s pass with the line all but screaming a welcome to him. Earls had said beforehand he took more pleasure in defence than in scoring. He did not have to prove it so blatantly here.

Throughout the half O’Brien was in his pomp, posting six tackles and carrying for 22 metres in the first half, a danger every time he touched the ball – or French belly. With two big guns down, though, Ireland needed the “Tullow Tank” to fire in the second 40 and he did so with gusto.

They took their three-point lead to the break, thankful that a late raid by France fell apart through boneheadedness at the breakdown when 10 metres from the line.

Seven minutes into the second half the Fields Of Athenry filled one of several injury breaks, after which Robbie Henshaw responded to the strangely powerful lament with a withering run of 40 metres that foundered two yards out. From their own put-in, they worked closer, creating space enough for Rob Kearney to burrow through on the angle. It was well worked, well deserved and well received in a stadium buzzing with full-throated enthusiasm.

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The zing and zest was unreservedly with Ireland and, when the captain, Thierry Dusautoir, dropped the simplest of passes, French heads drooped as if lingering beneath the guillotine.

They revived, like a late-night cognac slipped into a dying philosophical debate, to spread brief anxiety and a Morgan Parra penalty got them to within a score. But Ireland soaked it up and Madigan’s short try inside the final 10 minutes sealed it.

It was a tough, ultimately satisfying victory, one laced with a few regrets. But the greater woe resides with France. They must hope New Zealand’s relatively low-key campaign has one more less than stellar performance in it. It is a forlorn hope.

France Spedding; Nakaitaci, Bastareaud (Dumoulin, 62), Fofana, Dulin; Michalak (Talès, 55), Tillous-Borde (Parra, 55); Arous, Guirado (Kayser, 59), Slimani (Mas 64), Pape (Flanquart, 73), Maestri, Dusautoir (capt), Chouly (Le Roux, 55), Picamoles.

Pens Spedding 2, Parra.

Ireland R Kearney; Bowe, Earls (Fitzgerald, 62), Henshaw, D Kearney; Sexton (Madigan, 26), Murray (Reddan 77); Healy (McGrath, 57), Best (Strauss, 73), Ross (White 65), Toner, O’Connell (capt; Henderson, 40), O’Mahony (Henry, 55), O’Brien, Heaslip.

Tries R Kearney, Murray. Cons Madigan. Pens Sexton 2, Madigan 2.

Referee N Owens (Wales). Attendance 72,163


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