Ireland's preparations for the World Cup were marred by a second successive warm-up defeat, but they could at least take comfort from a spirited display. Ronan O'Gara, who kicked four penalties, led a second-half fightback with some superb tactical kicking but France – who were outstanding in the first half – had done enough. The winger Vincent Clerc scored his ninth try in nine games against Ireland and the scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili kicked 14 points.
Ireland returned to the setting of their disastrous 2007 World Cup for the toughest of their four warm-up Tests – having lost 10-6 to Scotland at Murrayfield last week, they will now face France again and then England at home.
Declan Kidney's team for this match showed eight changes, among them O'Gara starting at fly-half in place of Jonny Sexton and Donncha O'Callaghan coming into the second row. Another Munster lock, Paul O'Connell, was selected with the Leinster No 8 Jamie Heaslip on the bench as Ireland sought a second win in France since 1972.
Les Bleus – playing the first of only two warm-up games – made an ominous start, using a mixture of power and guile to ease into the Irish 22. Yachvili rifled over a penalty and shortly after that Sean O'Brien and Rory Best were smashed backwards. The hit on Best resulted in a turnover and France reacted in a flash,Maxime Mermoz chipping ahead only for full-back Rob Kearney to catch Clerc five metres out.
It was "fingers in the dam" stuff for Ireland, as Andrew Trimble executed a try-saving tackle on the fly-half François Trinh-Duc, and it was only a matter of time before the away side's line cracked. France's try came in the 18th minute. Scrambling in defence, Ireland failed to stop Alexis Palisson slipping the ball out of the tackle to Clerc, who raced over. Yachvili converted.
O'Brien, Ireland's most destructive ball-carrier, bulldozed his way into space but the respite was brief. France played as if they were on the training ground as they clicked through the gears, finding space at will. Flanker Imanol Harinordoquy was highly conspicuous, charging strongly and offloading deftly. Yachvili kicked his second penalty for 13-0 as Ireland continued to fall foul of referee Steve Walsh. When they did win a penalty, O'Gara produced a poor touch-finder. Keith Earls then ended his team's best attacking move by sending a pass straight into touch.
Ireland looked rattled and their attempts to build momentum lacked conviction against such aggressive defence. It was with some relief that O'Gara kicked a penalty to end a torrid half.
France started the second half with a bulldozing run by debutant No 8 Raphaël Lakafia, before Ireland exploded into life. Trimble, impressive again, found a gap and offloaded to Kearney. The Lions full-back raced 30 metres before running out of space and becoming isolated but the move finished with an O'Gara penalty to give some reward and keep Ireland in the game.
O'Connell was brought on, to a loud cheer from the travelling support, and he was soon joined by most of the Irish bench. The substitutions – Marc Lièvremont also used his replacements – took the urgency out of the game, but it was France who became ragged. Two O'Gara penalties followed and Ireland were in contention.
Yachvili, however, gave France breathing space with two penalties and they were back on their game after a poor 30 minutes. The match had regained its edge too, as both sides ran hard at each other. Keith Earls almost slipped in at the right corner and it was France who were under pressure in the final stages.
"We know what we have to do in the next match. You can't play for just one half," said Kidney. "The French know how to dominate and defend well, plus they scored a try. It is a winning combination in rugby."
France D Traille (Biarritz); V Clerc (Toulouse), D Marty (Perpignan), M Mermoz (Toulouse), A Palisson (Brive); F Trinh-Duc (Montpellier), D Yachvili (Biarritz); S Marconnet (Biarritz), D Szarzewski (Stade Français), L Ducalcon (Castres), J Pierre (Clermont Auvergne), R Millo-Chlusky, T Dusautoir (capt, both Toulouse), R Lakafia, I Harinordoquy (both Biarritz). Replacements D Skrela (Toulouse) for Mermoz, 26; JB Poux (Toulouse) for Marconnet, 54; G Guirado (Perpignan) for Szarzewski, 54; L Nallet (Racing Metro) for Millo-Chlusky, 58; J Bonnaire (Clermont) for Harinordoquy, 64; M Médard (Toulouse) for Traille, 64; M Parra (Clermont) for Yachvili, 77.
Ireland R Kearney (Leinster); A Trimble (Ulster), K Earls (Munster), P Wallace (Ulster), L Fitzgerald (Leinster); R O'Gara (Munster), E Reddan (Leinster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), M Ross (Leinster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), L Cullen (Leinster, capt), D Ryan, D Leamy (both Munster), S O'Brien (Leinster). Replacements F Jones (Munster) for Kearney, 46; J Heaslip (Leinster) for Leamy, 50; P O'Connell (Munster) for Cullen, 50; T Buckley (Sale) for Healy, 51; C Murray (Leinster) for Reddan, 60; J Flannery (Munster) for Best, 60; F McFadden (Leinster) for Trimble, 67; Healy for Ross, 69.
Referee S Walsh (Australia).
Pens: Yachvili 4
Pens: O'Gara 4