Ireland's grip on the Six Nations title slips away after France defeat
France 10-9 Ireland
Fatigue, injuries, a creaking scrum and a lack of cutting edge - all Ireland's perceived troubles reared their head again in the Stade de France on Saturday as Joe Schmidt's men fell to a late try from Maxime Medard.
A trio of Jonathan Sexton penalties in the first-half had given Ireland a 9-3 lead at the turn but their early dominance failed to yield a try and, when France improved in the second-half, the slender advantage was not enough to keep their hopes of a third consecutive title anything more than a faint flicker.
Having lost Sean O'Brien - only returned from a hamstring complaint - to an injury with 20 minutes gone, an attritional contest also saw Dave Kearney retire before the interval with a shoulder problem, but the French changes turned the game.
Schmidt opted against alterations to his tight five after the set-piece struggles against Wales six days prior but Guy Noves was more ruthless with his own misfiring pack.
Out went the starting props, Eddy Ben Arous and Rabah Slimani, from the victory over Italy and when the pair were sprung from the bench with 35 minutes to go on Saturday, they scrummaged with a point to prove, even if doing so with methods Schmidt suspected were illegal.
With their opposition finally grasping a foothold, skipper Rory Best - who was replaced with nine minutes to go - couldn't inspire his troops and, just as witnessed a week ago, a penalty try was in the offing had Meddard not burst over when the ball eventually came out of the scrum.
Jules Plisson's straightforward conversion gave the French a lead and, after their draining exertions in the opening 16-16 draw with the Welsh, Ireland could not lift themselves from the canvas.
It was a denouement that hardly seemed likely when France began the game in a fashion that, for all the talk of a re-birth, was similar to their disastrous World Cup.
With heavy rain falling, Ireland looked to test their back-three in the air early and a superb take from a deep lying Robbie Henshaw set up a chance for points but they decided to go for the corner rather than the posts.
An attempt to send O'Brien around the side was halted and, as Ireland came inside, the opportunity was spurned thanks to a knock-on.
In what was not the first nor the last questionable tackle from the hosts, a late hit from Yoann Maestri on Sexton after 13 minutes shook the out-half but did not knock him sufficiently out of sync to prevent the former Racing 92 man from opening the scoring.
In the first of three first-half calls to the bench, Tommy O'Donnell replaced O'Brien after the flanker's hamstring appeared to give way.
Ireland were very much on top but could not make their superiority count and, when Sexton knocked over another penalty after France killed the ball in the ruck 10 minutes before the half, a 6-0 lead still seemed like a less than acceptable return.
The passage also saw the pair of hits on Dave Kearney, one a high and thundering shot from Guilhem Guirado, which saw the Leinster wing leave the fray with his jersey as a makeshift sling.
A trading of penalties moved the score to 9-3, with France almost reducing the arrears further when Ireland made a mess of the restart and were penalised only for Plisson to push his effort.
There were few shoots of recovery evident in the second-half's opening five minutes but it was then that Noves signalled to his replacements.
With Jack McGrath having bested La Rochelle's giant tight-head Uini Atonio, and Nathan White held firm against Jefferson Poirot, the change paid immediate dividends as the set-piece battle altered substantially thanks to Ben Arous and Slimani.
Sexton continued to put air underneath the ball in a tactic that, when used, gave France some problems but there was still no telling breakthrough.
When the outstretched hand of Ulster's Andrew Trimble prevented a certain score for Les Bleus, it provided just a temporary reprieve.
With penalty advantage in their favour, the ball was sent to the corner, as Donnacha Ryan replaced the stricken Mike McCarthy for a second time.
Ireland defended the maul well but France's forwards continued to pound the line, Jaco Peyper only ruling that Damien Chouly had been held up after bouncing to the turf himself to check for a grounding and then a lengthy consultation with his TMO.
It was only a delay, however, with the subsequent series of scrums spelling Ireland's downfall as a rousing airing of La Marseillaise signalled the tide had turned.
Twice Ireland's set-piece crumpled in the shadow of their own posts and, with the threat of a penalty try very much to the fore, French full-back Medard darted beyond an onrushing Henshaw and out of reach of a despairing O'Donnell.
Sexton then left, his troubled shoulder appearing to be the cause, and any comeback for would have to be steered by Ian Madigan.
As it was, the visitors could barely work the ball out of their own half and they enter a down week, before a trip to Twickenham to face Grand Slam chasing England, with more questions than answers.
FRANCE: M Medard; T Thomas, M Mermoz, J Danty, V Vakatawa; J Plisson, S Bezy; J Poirot, G Guirado, U Atonio; A Flanquart, Y Maestri; W Lauret, Y Camara, D Chouly.
Replacements: C Chat (for Guirado, 48- 57), R Slimani (for Atonio, 44), E Ben Arous (for J Poirot,44), P Jedrasiak (for Maestri, 58), L Goujon (for Camara, 67), M Machenaud (for Bezy, 56), JM Doussain (for Danty, 76), H Bonneval (for Thomas, 44)
Try: Medard Con: Plisson Pen: Plisson
IRELAND: R Kearney; A Trimble, J Payne, R Henshaw, D Kearney; J Sexton, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best (for Strauss, 71), N White; M McCarthy, D Toner; CJ Stander, S O'Brien, J Heaslip.
Pens: Sexton 3
Replacements: R Strauss (for Best, 71), J Cronin (for McGrath, 73), T Furlong (for White, 62), D Ryan (for McCarthy, 34-40, 62), T O'Donnell (for O'Brien, 20), E Reddan, I Madigan (for Sexton, 69), F McFadden (for D Kearney, 29)
Match rating: 6/10
Man of the match: Maxime Medard (pictured)
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)