Schimdt opted for the fifteen players that helped him win his last two six nations and he could trust to follow his game plan as close to perfection as the Kiwi would expect. This meant rising star Iain Henderson would sit on the bench as well as Luke Fitzgerald and Jack McGrath. News of Jared Paynes world cup ending injury must have set alarm bells off in the coaches department as he has become an important part of the highly efficient Irish squad but rugby purists would be grinning at the thought of the ever flamboient Keith Earls running around big bad Mathieu Bastareaud. Cian Healy came back into the front row to partner Best and Ross for the thirtieth time a record in the pro era, this gave Ireland even more cohesion and confidence.
The stage was set the roof was closed in Cardiff and the place was rocking.The fields of athenry and La Marseillaise deafened the cauldron that is the Millenium. Fredie Michalak started off the occasion with a drop kick followed by a blast of the whistle from Nigel Owens. The intensity from both sides was immense. Munster men Peter O’Mahony and Paul O’Connell started off with a chip on their shoulder as the criticism towards the Irish rose with a lack lustre performance against the Italians and their intensity was nothing short of exceptional. O’Brien soon followed with hard hitting carries along with Best and Heaslip working like dogs. The pack started terrifecly and Schmidt had quite obviously set out to tire the massive French pack as we worked our way through phase after phase without the sight of the Johnny Sexton line kick that we know so well. Murray was launching his box kicks with precision and the back three of the Kearney brothers and Tommy Bowe chased like sprinters out of the blocks.
The French on the other hand didnt come out soft and disorganised as they have in recent years but played with width and were potent at the breakdown. Captain Dusatoir wasted no time before announcing his presence with two steals early on and old school lock Pascal Pape caused havock at the breakdown as per usual. In the backline Michalak’s acceleration and creativity caused problems for the Irish defence as they played width with not seen in recent test matches. Brice Dulin and Scott Spedding both acted as areial threats which proved quite effective through out the game and Wesley Fofana asked questions of the Irish defence as always.
Les Bleus had the opportunity to open up the scoring through two penaltys from Michalak and Spedding but misfired on both occasions which proved costly as the momentum could have easily shifted the French’s way with an early lead but it was non other than Johnny Sexton to draw first blood in the thirteenth minute through a penalty. The phases were building for both sides but uncharactaristily of Schmidts men another penatly was given away and this time Spedding was on the money.
The two teams were going blow for blow breaks from Michalak and Earls spiced up the game for the viewers. Sexton waited all of three minutes before disecting the posts putting Ireland three points ahead but Spedding leveled it soon after making procedings close and every decision needed to be on the money. In the twenty-sixth minute the whole of Ireland held their breath as Sexton took a juddering hit from Louis Picamoles and struggled to get to his feet .Sexton eventually was escorted off by medics and was not to return for the remainder of the match. In his place came young Ian Madigan who played on the gain line feeding off the packs momentum and getting the likes of Toner and O’mahony into the game. Madigans prescence was felt immdeiatly as he knocked over three points from the tee as the Irish crowd let out a huge roar and a huge relief that Sextons boots had been filled by a worthy successor.Madigan continued to control the game playing it wide where we saw Earls and Bowe come a light and narrow where Henshaw, O’brien and O’mahony flourished.Madigan didnt hesiate to play the corners either which showed real maturity in his game.As the second half came to its end Ireland became sloppy with loose passes from Madigan and stupid kicks from Kearney and Henshaw, while Frrance began to creep back into the game but we were saved by the bell as the clock struck fourty minutes.
However, we were forced to see our captain stretchered off with what looked like a tournament ending injury in the hamstring. This was the cause of many worried faces at half time as we were to head into the second half without argueably our two most inffluential players.
The second half began without the familiar faces of O’connell and Sexton but with what looks like the future of Irish rugby as exciting Iain Henderson and Ian Madigan made their mark on history. Henderson came out with his characterist ferocity and brute strenght which was assuring to see. Im not quite sure what was said in the changing rooms but a different Irish team walked out the tunnel and it was fantastic to watch.
Ireland played on the front foot and saw us stroll up the park as Madigan pulled the strings. Henshaw ran a beautiful line which saw him hauled down in the french twenty-two and we calmy went through the phases until Rob Kearney crossed over the whitewash from close range. Madigan missed with conversion but Irish spirits were high and it was Joe’s team who continued to dominate but with good news came more bad news as one of the best players on the park Peter O’mahony was stretchered off and on came Chris Henry. Henry made an immediate impact much like all of our substitutions and made it a little easier to watch O’mahony leave the pitch. From then on the substitutions were coming fast from both sides. Talles,Parra and Le Roux came on for the French in an attempt to put some speed onto the game but San Andre couldnt do much as the Irish were only getting started as they charged on through the likes of Henshaw and O’brien. Furthermore, Healy soon came off after having one of the more disapointing performances of the night.The debth in the Irish squad was starting to come into affect and was truely dangerous.
The French took the next three points through Parra’s boot and without the likes of Basteraud on the pitch looked to play more expansively but the men in green held possesion for large amounts of the second fourty. Schmidt began to really explore the dept of the bench as Nathan White and Fitzgerald emerged from the sidelines. White looked strong at scrum time and won two penaltys which saw Madigan put Ireland deep into the French half and through great composure on the Frech try line Murray was able to dot down for a try and the game was now quickly becoming a formality. Madigan slotted the conversion and Ireland began to make executing their game plan look easy. The next Irish substitution was Strauss on for Best who put in a tremendous shift over the course of his seventy-three minutes. Madigan disected the posts one final time in the seventy-seventh minute and Reddan came on as the final Irish substitution.
Right up until the last blast of the whistle Ireland put Les Bleus under extreme pressure and asked questions of thier quite officient defensive line.The last blast of the whistle went and Cardiff was to be painted green once agin. O’brien received man of the match for his immense physicality and intensity through his carries and his powerful work at the breakdown. O’brien will be cited for a punch on Pascal Pape and is at risk of missing the rest of the world cup. It’s also unlikely we will see O’connell in Irish jersey after what looked like a long term injury to the hamstring but we can hope to see Sexton and O’mahony back in green soon but to not get our hopes up as its all up in the air at this stage. On the flipside however, we can now say we are not reliant on individuals like O’Connell,Sexton and O’Mahony, as the squad stepped up to the plate tremendously.
Now is not time to think to far ahead and really just bask in the glory that was our victory over the French in which was a Truly fanatic affair.
Written By Max Heyraud