Ireland 17 France 20: Clerc chokes hopes of Irish Grand Slam

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The Independent Online

Irish dreams of a winning start to their temporary tenure at Croke Park were cruelly dashed by France in the final minute of a pulsating match. The victory keeps alive French hopes of a Grand Slam and leaves Ireland with dented self-belief after a stuttering start to their campaign.

The reigning champions kept their nerve right to the wire and continued an astonishing record, this being their 15th victory in 17 Six Nations matches since the 2003 World Cup.

The Ireland players were clearly distraught at the end. Denis Hickie, who could only watch helplessly after Vincent Clerc, the scorer of France's last-minute try, eluded his despairing tackle, sounded bemused afterwards.

"I'm not quite sure what happened at the end," he said. "I think we didn't take the kick-off or whatever and suddenly we were on the back foot." As for his attempt to stop Clerc, he said: "I wasn't close enough to get him properly."

Geordan Murphy, who suffered similar pain for France's first-half try, was more brutal on himself about his attempt to grab France hooker Raphael Ibañez. "That was a shocker," he admitted. "Ibañez just went through me."

Both men denied that the occasion had got to Ireland, who had started slowly before hitting back to take the lead on the hour. It was an advantage they increased when Ronan O'Gara, who scored all Ireland's points, knocked over his fourth penalty in the seventh minute of added time.

With fewer than three minutes remaining, the Irish, who had defended well throughout, momentarily lost concentration. The French ran at them, knocking them back and Clerc suddenly burst through, running inside Shane Horgan before leaving Hickie with his head in his hands.

Croke Park, home to the Gaelic Athletic Association, had welcomed its first "foreign" sport in the grandest of ways. The noise created by 82,300 people, some 72,000 of them Irish, who knew they had a place in the country's sporting history, defied description.

What little Ireland were allowed to do by the better organised French in the first half invariably came to nothing. They had spent so much time on the back foot, it was scarcely creditable the home side were still in it at the interval.

After just a quarter of an hour things were looking bleak for Ireland, two David Skrela penalties and, worse, a missed tackle by Murphy which let in Ibañez for a try after the hooker had been put away by Clerc.

Gradually, though, Eddie O'Sullivan's side began to impose their own pattern on events. A couple of O'Gara penalties kept them in touch and in good heart. The French began to look rattled, too many of Skrela's attempted clearance kicks were either charged down or came close to being so.

Then, in the 35th minute, as Ireland pressed into the French 22, O'Gara dummied, darted forward and fed Hickie. He found Horgan, then David Wallace ran on to a perfectly timed pass and the flanker found O'Gara,who had looped over to the left wing and cut inside and over for a try.

The crowd went wild, breaking all noise pollution levels in the north of Dublin. Skrela then missed two penalty attempts and Ireland went in at half-time a lot closer than had seemed possible.

After the interval they were a different team; fired up, furious at their first-half showing and fiercely intent on making amends. They had to work hard, but on the hour France conceded a penalty and as O'Gara's kick sailed between the uprights to give Ireland the lead for the first time in the match, eardrums were on the verge of being burst.

It all built up to a thrilling finish. Marcus Horan looked to have been held back, not once but twice, first by Imanol Harinordoquy, then by Clément Poitrenaud when chasing his grubber kick. But the referee, Steve Walsh, waved play on.

As proceedings moved into added time, the replacement fly-half Lionel Beauxis saw an attempted drop goal hit the right-hand upright to the backdrop of 70,000-odd gasps of relief. The, in the seventh minute of added time, the French fell foul of Walsh and O'Gara slotted the penalty goal. Every Ireland fan thought it was all over, but it wasn't, not quite.

The three minutes left were fraught for home fans as France countered, pushed back to the Ireland 22 and Clerc did his stuff. A nation's dreams lay in tatters.

Ireland: G Dempsey (Leinster); G Murphy (Leicester), G D'Arcy, S Horgan, D Hickie (all Leinster); R O'Gara (Munster), I Boss (Ulster); M Horan (Munster), R Best (Ulster), J Hayes, D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell (capt; all Munster), S Easterby (Llanelli Scarlets), D Wallace, D Leamy (both Munster). Replacements: A Trimble (Ulster) for Murphy, 66; N Best (Ulster) for Easterby, 71; J Flannery (Munster) for R Best, 76.

France: C Poitrenaud; V Clerc (both Toulouse), D Marty (Perpignan), Y Jauzion (Toulouse), C Dominici; D Skrela (both Stade Français), P Mignoni (Clermont Auvergne); S Marconnet (Stade Français), R Ibañez (Wasps, capt), P de Villiers (Stade Francais), L Nallet, P Papé (both Castres), S Betsen, I Harinordoquy (both Biarritz), S Chabal (Sale). Replacements: Thion (Biarritz) for Papé, 51; J Bonnaire (Bourgoin) for Chabal, 56; L Beauxis (Stade Français) for Skrela, 57; O Milloud (Bourgoin) for De Villiers, 75; S Bruno (Sale) for Ibañez, 80.

Referee: S Walsh (New Zealand).

Croke Park details

IRELAND FRANCE

5/1 Scrums won/lost 11/0

20/1 Lineouts won/lost 13/0

4 Pens conceded 10

5 Turnovers won 12

125 Passes completed 114

5 Line breaks 3

31 Possession kicked 40

74 Tackles made 84

10 Missed 16

15 Total errors 12

TOP CARRIES

Chabal (France) 8

D Wallace (Ireland) 8

Clerc (France) 7

TOP TACKLERS

Betsen (France) 11

Leamy (Ireland) 11

Harinordoquy (France) 10

MOST OFF-LOADS

D'Arcy (Ireland) 2

Hickie (Ireland) 2

Horgan (Ireland) 2

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