x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Ireland fail to end France rugby jinx

Ireland slumped to an all-too-familiar defeat by France on their Six Nations debut at Aviva Stadium after failing with an heroic late fightback.

Jonathan Sexton, right, is tackled by France's Julien Pierre during their Six Nations match at the Aviva Stadium.
Jonathan Sexton, right, is tackled by France's Julien Pierre during their Six Nations match at the Aviva Stadium.

Ireland slumped to an all-too-familiar defeat by France on their Six Nations debut at Aviva Stadium after failing with an heroic late fightback.

Tries from winger Fergus McFadden and scrum-half Tomas O'Leary helped them to a 15-12 half-time lead and the Grand Slam champions looked ripe for the taking.

However, Maxime Medard crossed to help Les Bleus back into the driving seat before Jamie Heaslip crashed over in the right corner to set up a grandstand finish.

Les Bleus, who replaced the Irish as Grand Slam champions last year, have dominated encounters between the sides since 2003, losing just once in their last nine meetings.

Ireland made one change following their 13-11 triumph against Italy with No 8 Jamie Heaslip welcomed back at number eight after recovering from an ankle injury.

France, fresh from their dashing 34-21 triumph against Scotland in Paris, moved Damien Traille from full-back to centre with Clement Poitrenaud taking the number 15 jersey.

Ireland could not have made a more explosive start with Luke Fitzgerald crossing after two minutes, only for Gordon D'Arcy's final pass correctly to be called forward.

Two minutes later they breached the whitewash, capitalising when Poitrenaud dropped the ball as France launched a kamikaze attack from their own 22.

Leinster winger Fergus McFadden, playing his second Test, pounced on the loose ball and then reappeared a few phases later to burrow over from close range.

Sexton converted and France's disastrous opening continued when they sent the restart straight into touch, though a mistake from scrum-half Tomas O'Leary eased the pressure.

It was the champions' turn to attack and Ireland defended until straying offside and Morgan Parra landed the penalty.

Back on the offensive, Declan Kidney's team almost released McFadden into space but Sexton's pass was too weighted.

An almighty cheer sounded in the 16th minute when France's scrum, fresh from pulverising Scotland last week, collapsed.

It was a moral victory for the much-maligned Irish front row and Sexton kicked the ensuing penalty to rub salt into the wound, though Parra replied in kind soon after.

Ireland looked sensational at times but, as in Rome, they were making unforced handling errors at key moments, preventing them from building momentum.

Adding to their problems was the pinpoint kicking of Parra, who rifled over a third penalty.

O'Leary continued to suffer with the Munster half-back, who has been struggling with a back injury this week, sending an inexplicable chip straight into touch.

There was no let up from referee Dave Pearson either, with Donncha O'Callaghan conceding and Parra booting France ahead for the first time.

Blessed with a wealth of attacking options, both teams looked to move the ball wide whenever possible and only the error count restricted their ambition.

Ireland struck next, the rejuvenated O'Leary charging through France's defence to start the move before later finishing it by breaking a tackle and forcing the ball over the whitewash.

Francois Trinh-Duc had a drop-goal attempt charged down by ubiquitous blindside flanker Sean O'Brien moments after France centre Damien Traille almost broke free down the left.

Ireland's scrum continued in the ascendancy, winning a free kick and then shoving the French pack backwards, but a fifth Parra penalty levelled the score.

A 20-metre scrum offered a great attacking platform for Ireland but an over-complicated backs move was easy for Les Bleus to contain.

France showed their opponents how it should be done from a similar position in the 55th minute, though they were helped by a weak tackle from Gordon D'Arcy.

Aurelien Rougerie ran straight at D'Arcy, sent the Leinster centre cannoning backwards, and dashed forward before drawing Fitzgerald and supplying Maxime Medard with the scoring pass.

Substitute scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili landed the conversion and at 22-15 ahead, France were in a strong position.

Yachvili slotted a penalty but Ireland refused to give up hope and were rewarded with a 68th-minute try from Jamie Heaslip.

It took 26 phases close to the whitewash before France cracked, a poorly-executed kick from substitute Ronan O'Gara falling into the arms of David Wallace who sent Heaslip in at the corner.

O'Gara's conversion struck the left post on its way over, setting up a nerve-shredding climax.

Heart-rates soared with two minutes to go when Keith Earls chipped ahead and Ireland hunted in numbers, but France's scrambling defence was superb.

Last-ditch tackles held firm and, when substitute hooker Sean Cronin knocked on, Les Bleus were able to breathe a sigh of relief.