Robbie Henshaw’s delight after Rob Kearney’s try
Ireland lost Johnny Sexton, Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony to injury but they still beat France 24-9 to set up a World Cup quarter final against Argentina next week.
Ireland secured top spot in Pool D with a superb team victory over France, but it came at a huge injury cost as Jonathan Sexton, Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony were forced from the field of play.
In a hugely physical encounter at the Millennium Stadium, Joe Schmidt’s side set up a last eight encounter with Argentina, but what personnel he will have at his disposal is another question.
Having lost Jonathan Sexton after 25 minutes, there were anxious Irish faces as team captain Paul O’Connell left the field on a stretcher at half-time.
The Munster lock was initially given oxygen before he was stretchered from the field of play, with Ulster’s Iain Henderson introduced as his replacement.
O’Connell, who will retire from international rugby at the end of the tournament, could now be sidelined for the remainder of the tournament with Irish fans fearing they man have seen the last of one of the greatest Irish players of all-time in a green jersey.
The sight of O’Mahony, after putting in a mammoth defensive shift, leaving in the second half added to the injury woes while there are also fears that Sean O’Brien may be cited for an alleged punch during a game where no quarters were given or asked.
On the field, it was a case of job done, with Rob Kearney and Conor Murray scoring second half tries to ensure victory.
Ireland began like a team intent on putting down a serious World Cup marker. Schmidt’s side forced two turnovers in the first three minutes, with the combative Peter O’Mahony heavily as Ireland targeted the French ball carriers.
It was however the French who had the opportunity to get France off the mark after six minutes with a penalty after Devin Toner strayed offside, but Freddie Michalak could only watch as his kick drifted wide . Minutes later and the Millennium Park woodwork denied Scott Spedding with a long-range penalty attempt as Ireland rode their luck in the opening stages.
Jonathan Sexton showed the pair how it is done when he coolly slotted over with his first attempt to push Ireland into an early lead.
Cian Healy was getting on the wrong side of Nigel Owens and the Welsh whistler pinged the returning prop for holding on at the breakdown, with Spedding making it third time lucky for Philipp Saint-Andre’s side from 50 metres.
The lead was quickly restored for Ireland when Sexton made no mistake with his second penalty after his drop goal hit the post. However it was a kick to nothing with Owens having signalled an Irish advantage.
O’Mahony’s high tackle just inside the French half was punished by Spedding who again showed his monstrous kicking ability to fire over with the join-longest kick of this year’s World Cup.
The reigning Six Nations champions were dealt a huge blow when Sexton was forced to leave the pitch after a big hit from French number 8 Louis Picamoles. The talk all week had been that the Leinster out-half would be targeted, though the challenge was entirely legal, it forced the introduction of Ian Madigan after just 25 minutes.
The substitute had an immediate impact, pushing Ireland back into a three-point lead before a booming penalty found Ireland decent field territory, which they failed to capitalise on after a lineout malfunction.
It took half an hour for the first sniff of a try, but Keith Earls failed to take advantage of the two-on-one after a brilliant break from Tommy Bowe. The outside centre failed to hold onto the pass as Brice Dulin scrambled across to try and prevent what looked like a certain try.
Rory Best made another crucial turnover as the French mounted a threatening attack while Madigan exuded confidence every time he touched the ball, as Ireland entered the break with a narrow three-point advantage.
Despite losing two key leaders, it was Ireland who made all the running after the break and were full value for the try., with Rob Kearney powering past Michalak 10 minutes after the interval.
Indeed France spent considerable time on the backfoot and substitute Morgan Parra’s penalty to reduce the gap to five points came somewhat against the run of play.
Conor Murray’s fourth try for Ireland sent the majority of the crowd wild when he dotted down with eight minutes remaining to settle the nerves, with Madigan’s final penalty the icing on the cake.
Next up Argentina, but Ireland’s medical team are in for a busy week after a costly victory in Cardiff.