Brian O’Driscoll’s world record 141st and last Test match ended with a victory lap of honour around the stadium in Paris as Ireland won the Six Nations’ Championship for only the second time since 1985 in a dramatic finale to this season’s tournament.
The eminent Dubliner has given this writer and millions of rugby-lovers so much pleasure through his gifts. Arguably the world’s greatest ever centre threequarter – and certainly one of the foremost masters of the game in the open era – he predicted the tears would flow, once there had been the assistance of “multiple beers on board”. Until that release of emotion, O’Driscoll was reluctant even to peel the sweat-stained green Ireland jersey from his back, knowing this time would be the last time.
He has a few weeks remaining of his farewell season, in which he will bid to add a fourth Heineken Cup with his province Leinster to his many achievements – even though he admitted regret here at the one that got away, a win over the All Blacks, against whom O’Driscoll played 14 times and lost the lot, most recently last November. “You can’t have it all,” he said, “and there’s a great sense of happiness to finish on a high after so many nearlys.”
And in helping Ireland to pip England to this Six Nations title on points difference, in the very stadium where he first grabbed global attention with three tries 14 years ago, O’Driscoll exited the Test stage with a Palladium-sized dollop of the theatrical.
Among the incidents and accidents of a scoreless last quarter, the referee Steve Walsh used television replays to disallow a French try two minutes from time, and Ireland used their favourite choke-tackle to halt the mighty Sebastien Vahaamahina, sealing only their second win in Paris since 1972; the other had been on O’Driscoll’s hat-trick day in 2000.
It was O’Driscoll’s second Championship to go with the one he won as captain with a Grand Slam in 2009, as Ireland succeeded where the other three contenders England, Wales and France had failed by winning away to a main rival.
In 43 meetings since 1975 Ireland had managed just five wins. But this glory game ended early for Johnny Sexton, who had ridden a rollercoaster of two tries and good and bad goal-kicks, until Mathieu Bastareaud’s forearm collided with his head. Ireland’s Lions fly-half was carried off but soon recovered.
Two tries in six minutes midway through the first half had enabled Ireland to overturn France’s lead of 6-0 given them by two penalties from Maxime Machenaud, both for not releasing after the tackle.
On 20 minutes, Paul O’Connell was grappled by Louis Picamoles but freed the ball for Chris Henry, with a one-handed pass, to send Sexton over. Then Ireland exploited poor French defence at a scrum with O’Driscoll barging into Rémi Talès and Conor Murray shooting clear before feeding Andrew Trimble, with a conversion by Sexton for 12-6.
Showing some of the dash of the win over England here in the Championship’s opening weekend, France responded in the 30th minute with a classic cross-kick try: Talès, starting for the first time in this Six Nations, to Yoann Huget leaping on the right to beat Rob Kearney and tap down for Brice Dulin.
The superb conversion by Machenaud was followed by an awful penalty miss by Sexton just before half-time but the finest way to get over that was for Sexton to repeat his feat in the thrashing of Italy last weekend that boosted Ireland’s points difference, by grabbing his second try.
Five minutes into the second half, France had been depleted by both starting props going off. They pushed an attack too hard and fumbled it, and Ireland went almost the length of the field with Trimble piercing the cover and O’Driscoll sidestepping Dulin – “I knew I didn’t have the gas to get him on the outside,” the great man smiled – before Sexton took a simple scoring line off a ruck and added the conversion. With a penalty by Sexton in the 53rd minute Ireland had a two-score lead.
That soon became one, via what looked a lucky escape for Cian Healy making a dangerous clear-out on Picamoles, when Dimitri Szarzewski finished a punishing series of rucks at the base of a post and Machenaud converted before giving way to Jean-Marc Doussain. The next thing to give way, after Sexton’s injury, was Ireland’s scrum, but Doussain missed the 30-metre penalty. Doussain was whistled up for holding on, then something similar befell Ireland.
A safe pass by Pascal Papé to Damien Chouly would have broken the Irish but Rob Kearney harried the France captain into fluffing it. Then came Vahaamahina’s rumble when it seemed the entire Emerald Isle were on the Frenchman’s back.
The Ireland and former Leinster head coach, Joe Schmidt, had only mentioned the O’Driscoll farewell once in the build-up. “The players were conscious enough of wanting it to be special,” said Schmidt, “and I think they achieved that.”
France: B Dulin; Y Huget, M Bastareaud, G Fickou (M Mermoz, 76), M Medard; R Tales, M Machenaud (J-M Doussain, 67); T Domingo (V Debaty, 41), D Szarzewski (G Guirado, 68), N Mas, (R Slimani, 37), P Pape (capt), Y Maestri (A Flanquart, 53), L Picamoles (S Vahaamahina, 66), A Lapandry (W Lauret, 76), D Chouly.
Ireland: R Kearney; A Trimble, B O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy (F McFadden, 67), D Kearney; J Sexton (I Madigan, 68), C Murray (E Reddan, 63); C Healy (J McGrath, 71), R Best (S Cronin, 71), M Ross (M Moore, 63), D Toner, P O’Connell (capt), P O’Mahony (I Henderson, 63), C Henry, J Heaslip.
Referee: S Walsh (Australia)