Rugby Union: French given fright of their lives

France 18 Ireland 16 Tries: Bernat-Salles Try: Hickie Ibanez Con: Elwood Con: Lamaison Pens: Elwood 3 Pens: Lama ison 2 ; Half-time: 6-13 Attendance: 80,000
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The Independent Online
WE gathered in France's Grand Stade in expectation of the biggest slaughter in Parisian parts since the storming of the Bastille. Instead, we witnessed what was very nearly the greatest revolt in the history of Five Nations' battles. When the final blast of Jim Fleming's whistle signalled an end to hostilities, the green-shirted upstarts sank to the ground. They did so in despair and frustration.

In glorious defeat in Paris yesterday, the Irish no-hopers brought the rugby-playing aristocrats of France to their very knees. By a margin of three points, they failed to emerge from an expected record defeat with a famous victory. The collective sigh of relief threatened to lift the crystal roof off the sparkling Stade when Raphael Ibanez crashed over the Irish line in the 71st minute.

The French captain raised eyebrows when he suggested the team that put 51 points past Scotland might be in for a "dangerous match" against an Ireland side seemingly doomed to add another wooden spoon. He was, however, a hooker with Nostradamus vision.

It took his desperation try to snatch the lead and the victory from Ireland. It could not, though, snatch the glory from Warren Gatland's team. They were men inspired in their first match for their new coach. They came within nine minutes of Ireland's first victory in Paris since 1972. "But for that one crucial second," Gatland said, "we achieved what we set out to do. We came here to win. Any team, whatever their quality, will crack if you put them under pressure."

Gatland made five changes to the team he inherited from Brian Ashton and before kick-off it seemed he could have done with an extra five bodies on the field. Fifteen, however, proved more than enough to expose the shortcomings that were surprisingly evident from the moment Franck Tournaire and Christian Califano performed Half Monties to replace ill-fitting shorts. The French flair that scorched the Scots at Murrayfield was conspicuously absent.

Ireland, though, were a team transformed too. From the first minute, when Olivier Magne's charge was cut short, Keith Wood and his pack fought their ground with wolfish determination, and supreme discipline. Confirmation of how deeply they had preyed on French nerves came in the 18th minute when Ibanez instructed Christophe Lamaison to kick for goal. The Brive centre duly landed his penalty but France continued to founder. They held the lead for just nine minutes, Elwood succeeding with his second pot at the posts. Lamaison was off target with his second effort but it was as France sought to cut loose for the first time, with 35 minutes on the clock, that the possibility of an Irish upset emerged as a real possibility. In his haste to release Thomas Castaignede from the halfway line, Lamaison failed to spot Denis Hickie lurking with intent. The Dubliner intercepted the ball with his left hand, clutched it to his chest with his right and set off for the line. His try was the first by an Irishman in Paris since Freddie McLennan's in 1980. Elwood converted and traded injury-time penalties with Lamaison to take Ireland to half-time with a 13-6 lead. They held defiantly on to it after the break, Richard Wallace making a vital intervention with his right boot as Castaignede prepared to touch down his own chip- kick and Fleming incurring the wrath of the natives, ruling that Ibanez grounded the ball short of the line before claiming a push-over try. They stretched 10 points clear for a second time, Elwood administering the punishment after a high tackle by Olivier Brouzet in the 51st minute.

It seemed a double act of common sense when, on the stroke of the hour mark, Gatland chose to shuffle his pack, sending on Nick Popplewell and Ross Nesdale for Wood and Reggie Corrigan. Fresh front-row limbs would be needed in the final quarter. It proved, however, to be a piece of bad timing. The French pack drove forward from halfway and Jean-Luc Sadourny sliced through the Irish defence, feeding Philippe Bernat-Salles for an overlap in the right corner. Lamaison's conversion reduced the gap to three points and set up a rousing finale.

Sadourny surged through the green line again two minutes later. Once again, he slipped the ball to Bernat-Salles. This time, though, the Pau Rocket was fired into touch by three Irishmen. It might all have been different had Elwood made the most of a glorious attacking opening forged by Conor McGuinness, in the 68th minute. Ireland had men to spare on the right but Elwood, crucially, pirouetted to survey his options before shipping the ball wide. Ireland's glorious chance had gone.

Ibanez dived over five minutes later to salvage France's back-to-back Grand Slam bid.

France: J-L Sadourny (Colomiers); P Bernat-Salles (Pau), C Lamaison (Brive), S Glas (Bourgoin), X Garbajosa (Toulouse); T Castaignede (Castres), P Carbonneau (Brive); C Califano (Toulouse), R Ibanez (Dax, capt), F Tournaire (Toulouse), O Brouzet (Begles-Bordeaux), A Pelous (Toulouse), M Lievremont (Stade Francais), T Lievremont (Perpignan), O Magne (Brive). Replacements: P Benetton (Agen) for M Lievremont, 54; C Soulette (Beziers) for Tournaire, 66; T Cleda (Pau), for Pelous, 74.

Ireland: C O'Shea (London Irish); R Wallace (Saracens), K Maggs (Bristol), R Henderson (Wasps), D Hickie (St Mary's College); E Elwood (Galwegians), C McGuinness (St Mary's College); R Corrigan (Greystones), K Wood (Harlequins, capt), P Wallace (Saracens), P Johns (Saracens), M O'Kelly (London Irish), D Corkery (Bristol), V Costello (St Mary's College), A Ward (Ballynahinch). Replacements: R Nesdale (Newcastle),for Wood, 60 N Popplewell (Newcastle) for Corrigan, 60; M Galwey (Shannon) for Johns, 65; P Clohessy (Young Munster) for P Wallace, 65.

Referee: J Fleming (Scotland).