France 35 Ireland 27
ANY designs that Ireland had of securing the Six Nations title were blown apart by a fantastic French performance at the Stade de France on Saturday evening.
To win the championship France needed to win by 31 points and score four tries, while Ireland required a six-point win, with one try scored. Ultimately neither team was able to reach their goal meaning that Eddie Jones’ England side ended the evening as Six Nations champions.
Conor Murray was just wide from a monster 57-metre penalty in the sixth minute, and a minute later France struck for the opening score of the game when left wing Gael Fickou was left with a bizarre one-on-one with tighthead prop Andrew Porter down the left flank.
The speedster beat him with ease, then outpaced the covering Murray before feeding the supporting Antoine Dupont to dot down under the Irish posts, with outhalf Romain Ntamack adding the extras.
French full-back Anthony Bouthier was sinbinned for deliberately slapping the ball dead on his own goal line in the 10th minute, and Ireland capitalised with Cian Healy barrelling over from close range in the 19th minute, on the occasion of his 100th cap, to level affairs at the quarter mark.
Ireland continued their excellent response to that early French try when captain Jonathan Sexton kicked a penalty in the 26th minute, from straight in front of the French posts, as Ireland had an early stranglehold in terms of territory and possession.
A huge moment occurred in the 30th minute when referee Wayne Barnes awarded France a penalty try after Irish blindside Caelan Doris had tackled Gregory Alldritt without the ball when a try looked certain after Jacob Stockdale had made a huge error by not gathering a ball on the deck.
This was extra notable given that Stockdale had struggled with a simple grubber kick moments earlier. Doris was duly yellow carded for the indiscretion.
Sexton responded with a penalty to reduce Ireland’s deficit to only one point in the 33rd minute, but Ntamack added one of his own in the 38th minute.
Ireland had a chance to reduce the half time deficit to just one point in the final play of the half, but captain Sexton made a bizarre call to try and attempt a seven pointer, and when Ireland coughed up the ball it meant they needed to win the second half by ten points to secure the championship.
Ireland’s title aspirations were extinguished in the 44th minute when Fickou’s chip over the top fell kindly to scrum-half Dupont, who was able to pop the ball to his supporting half-back Ntamack to score.
The Toulouse number 10 added further three-pointers in the 48th and 52nd minutes as the game got away from Ireland, as Ireland’s error count increased significantly from the first half.
Ireland centre Robbie Henshaw then breathed life back into the tie with a wonderful individual effort in the 60th minute, as he beat a number of would-be French tacklers to score in the left corner. Sexton added the conversion to leave Ireland trailing 28-20.
Ireland had a couple of excellent attacking opportunities soon after to really ask questions of this young French side, but unfortunately the replacement hooker Dave Heffernan failed to find his targets at lineout time.
France then scored a wonderful try in the 71st minute when Ntamack continued his wonderful second-half display with a beautiful dink over the top, and after he gathered himself he fed centre Virimi Vakatawa to score behind the Ireland posts, and kill any lingering hopes that Ireland still had.
Stockdale scored a try at the death to reduce the margin to eight, after great work from Hugo Keenan, but it was only a consolation.
Scorers for France: Ntamack (1 try, 3 pens, 2 cons), Dupont, Vakatawa (1 try each), penalty try.
Ireland: Sexton (2 pens, 2 cons), R Byrne (1 con), Healy, Henshaw, Stockdale (1 try each).