Brilliant O'Driscoll breaks France's spell

New hope's opportunistic hat-trick claims honours for Irish legionnaires who seize first victory in Paris since 1972
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The Independent Online

Ireland's remarkable victory against a strangely complacent France owed everything to youthful exuberance, a willingness to match endeavour with chance, and the quite extraordinary finishing of Brian O'Driscoll. It has been an awfully long time coming, and when Ireland last won in Paris O'Driscoll was not even a glint in his parents' eyes.

Coming on the back of 15 straight defeats by France, and with their last win in Paris as long ago as 1972, all Ireland will be on the black stuff for weeks if not longer. Forget for the moment that France were apparently strolling to a comfortable win and were leading 22-14 as the match entered the final quarter, forget too that the French defence went walkabout at crucial moments, this was Ireland's and O'Driscoll's day.

When France wake up from the nightmare of some dreadful defensive lapses, they will not believe it. Nor will the 21-year-old O' Driscoll when he awakes this morning.

While it was O'Driscoll's keen nose for the line which won the match for Ireland, he was given terrific support by the 23-year-old Ronan O'Gara, the equally inexperienced Peter Stringer, 22, and, after he replaced O'Gara for the final dramatic quarter, David Humphreys. He was able to add to the memory of the notable part he played in Ulster's European Cup triumph a year ago by converting the third of O'Driscoll's tries, before banging over the penalty which sealed Ireland's remarkable win.

The contest rarely offered any of the thunder which accompanies the matches here between France and England, and for long periods the Irish forwards were hanging on by their fingernails. It might have all slipped away from them when Paddy Johns was sent to the sin-bin shortly after replacing Mick Galwey. But somehow Keith Wood kept his troops focused in the anxious moments before O' Driscoll struck for the third time.

With the sun at their backs, and on a pitch completely relaid since England were here a month ago, Gerald Merceron signalled France's intention to play it their way with two blistering breaks, either of which could have resulted in a try. From the first, Stéphane Glas put the debutant Montferrand winger, David Bory, across in the left corner, but the pass was adjudged marginally forward, though it was a close call.

The second came when Merceron off-loaded to Emile Ntamack, but the full back's chip into goal just rolled dead. While Ireland were catching their breath and counting their luck at the same time, Merceron kicked France into the lead with two well-struck penalties.

Faced with an abundance of mutual French assurance and some wonderfully imaginative running, it was no wonder that Ireland took time to find some self expression of their own. When they did, it was the hugely promising O'Driscoll who raised the Irish flag with a slash through the French cover, before repeating the trick minutes later for the opening try, which O'Gara converted. At this stage of the match, the Ireland half-backs were in front by a short head.

While Ireland were regrouping after the France pack had rolled them out towards Charles de Gaulle Airport, Christophe Laussucq skipped across for a cheeky try at the posts for Merceron to convert and regain the lead. Their 13-7 advantage would not have lasted until the break, had Ireland been able to finish a smart move down the right flank. But Kieron Dawson spilled Anthony Foley's pass in the act of touching down, as Fabien Pelous somehow got across to make the saving tackle.

Though far from downcast by that near miss, Ireland went further behind to two more penalty goals from Merceron. But O'Driscoll rescued Irish hopes after Rob Henderson made the running for the try, though Emile Ntamack and Abdelatif Benazzi missed the crucial tackles. O'Gara converted and Ireland were just five points adrift.

David Humphreys popped over a penalty in the middle of two more by Merceron. That left it at 25-17 with eight minutes remaining. As the Ireland forwards gave it one more lash, France failed to get enough defenders behind the ball and it went to ground in what seemed an innocuous position. But O'Driscoll spotted the chance, swooped to gather up the loose ball and was through a posse of static defenders in a flash. Humphreys converted, and then kicked his towering, winning penalty to seal victory.

FRANCE: E Ntamack (Toulouse); P Bernat-Salles (Biarritz), C Desbrosse (Toulouse), S Glas (Bourgoin), D Bory (Montferrand); G Merceron (Montferrand), C Laussucq (Stade Français); C Califano (Toulouse), M Dal Maso (Colomiers), F Tournaire, F Pelous (both Toulouse, capt), O Brouzet (Bordeaux-Bÿgles), A Costes (Montferrand), A Benazzi (Agen), T Liévremont (Perpignan). Replacements: R Ibanez (Perpignan) for Dal Maso, 50: P de Villiers (Stade Français) for Tournaire, 70; F Belot (Toulouse) for Brouzet, 70; L Mallier (Brive) for Benazzi, 49.

IRELAND: G Dempsey (Terenure); K Maggs (Bath), B O'Driscoll (Blackrock), R Henderson (Wasps), D Hickie (St Mary's); R O'Gara (Cork Constitution), P Stringer (Shannon); P Clohessy (Young Munster), K Wood (Garryowen, capt), J Hayes (Shannon), M Galwey (Shannon), M O'Kelly (St Mary's), S Easterby (Llanelli), K Dawson (London Irish), A Foley (Shannon). Replacements: D Humphreys (Dungannon) for Hickie, 46-54, O'Gara 61; P Johns (Dungannon) for Galwey 54; A Ward (Ballynahinch) for Dawson 54.

Referee: P Honiss (New Zealand).

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