Rugby World Cup: Ireland push through the pain barrier to defeat France
Ireland 24-9 France
Ireland saved their best for last in the World Cup pool stages yesterday as they blasted France away at the Millennium Stadium to top Pool D and book a meeting with Argentina in the quarter-finals this weekend.
A game three years in the making, it has long been clear that this would be a contest that Ireland must target given what was at stake.
The men in green have never beaten New Zealand, nor won a quarter-final, but knew that if they lost yesterday, the All Blacks in the last eight would be the challenge waiting back at Cardiff in just six days' time.
Following a performance of real intensity and desire, and thanks to tries from Rob Kearney and Conor Murray, however, it will instead be the Pumas in the first knockout round, even if any joy from Joe Schmidt will be tempered by worries over the availability of some key contributors.
Paul O'Connell's World Cup, and Test career, appear to be over after he was carted from the field just before half-time, the inspirational captain following Johnny Sexton into the physio room.
With Jared Payne having been ruled out of the competition with a fractured foot, Keith Earls got another crack in the number 13 jersey but the Munsterman was another, along with clubmate Peter O'Mahony, who was replaced in the second-half and was seen on the bench applying ice to his shoulder.
Sean O'Brien, who was back to his very best, may yet also be absent should the citing commissioner intervene over what appeared to be a first-half punch.
In his pre-match press conferences Schmidt spoke of narrow selection calls with Iain Henderson, man-of-the-match last week, left on the bench in favour of Devin Toner but the 23-year-old Ulsterman was given a longer cameo than expected after O'Connell's hamstring ended his day at half-time.
The French were bullish in tone, outwardly stating their intention to once again hunt down Sexton who lasted just 25 minutes.
A familiar tactic from Les Bleus over recent Six Nations campaigns, seen Schmidt's key playmaker departed with what seemed to be a combination of groin injury and heavy hit to his ribs but Ian Madigan was able to guide the side through the guts of an hour.
The physicality was this time there right from the off, Jamie Heaslip burying Guilhem Guirado behind the gainline with only minutes gone.
A collapsed scrum gave France an opportunity, with Scott Spedding taking on duties off the tee but his long range effort struck an upright and bounced into the arms of O'Brien.
The first of two Sexton kicks before his untimely exit, after Bastareaud had met the offside decision with a typically Gallic shrug, gave Ireland the lead but Spedding struck straight back when Ireland were pinged for holding on.
The swapping of penalties continued, Sexton punishing Yoann Maestri's failure to roll away before Spedding did likewise when O'Mahony was whistled for a high tackle.
A Sexton kick from hand was then tipped by French finger tips but in the process of chasing the errant delivery off his own boot the Leinsterman came up limping and, after a spell of treatment, was hit hard by Pascal Pape shortly after. The 30-year-old cut a dejected figure as Madigan jogged on to the field in his stead.
Sexton's understudy for both club and country took his first chance off the tee to give Ireland a lead that, despite the ensuing injury misfortune, they would not relinquish.
Such was Ireland's superiority on the scoreboard come the final whistle, they could even afford to spurn a gilt-edged chance when Tommy Bowe burst through the French defences off a lineout in midfield but Earls failed to gather the pass with the whitewash at his mercy.
With O'Connell having injured his hamstring when caught in a ruck, a seemingly sad end to the Ireland career of the legendary lock, the half-time break with just a three-point lead was a nervous time for the hordes of Ireland fans who travelled to Cardiff but their team ensured they had nothing to fear after the turn.
Ten minutes after the restart, a brilliant break from Robbie Henshaw created an opening and although he was halted, as was a charging Tommy Bowe, Rob Kearney burst through Michalak and pounded the ball into the turf.
Madigan could not convert and there was further consternation in the minutes that followed with O'Mahony also requiring the aid of a stretcher to leave the field with a leg injury.
The substitutes bench provided a lift in energy, both sides have expended so much already, and France brought themselves within a score thanks to a substitute Morgan Parra's penalty with a just under a quarter remaining.
The last 10 points of the contest, however, would go the way of Schmidt's side.
First Conor Murray stretched the ball onto the base of the post after a brilliant kick from Madigan had won all-important territory.
When Madigan rounded out the scoring with the conversion and another penalty, the result was no longer in doubt and the fans inside had long since started the celebrations.
For management however, attention will already have turned to next week's meeting against the tournament's dark horses. Losing once in the pool stages, and that to New Zealand, Argentina have sailed through to the quarters in impressive style with only the All Blacks and South Africa having scored more tries.
A challenging proposition with a full side, Ireland will anxiously wait to see just who will be available this weekend to build on the momentum yesterday's noteworthy win.
Ireland: R Kearney, T Bowe, K Earls, R Henshaw, D Kearney, J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Best, M Ross, D Toner, P O'Connell, P O'Mahony, S O'Brien, J Heaslip.
Replacements: R Strauss (for Best, 72), J McGrath (for Healy, 57), N White (for Ross, 65), I Henderson (for O'Connell, 40), C Henry (for O'Mahony, 55), E Reddan (for Murray, 76), I Madigan (for Sexton, 25), L Fitzgerald (for Earls, 62).
France: S Spedding, N Nakaitaci, M Bastareaud, W Fofana, B Dulin, F Michalak, S Tillous-Borde; E Ben Arous, G Guirado, R Slimani, P Pape, Y Maestri, T Dusautoir, D Chouly, L Picamoles.
Replacements: B Kayser (for Guirado, 57), V Debaty (for Ben Arous 65), N Mas (for Slimani, 62), A Flanquart (for Pape, 73), B Le Roux (for Chouly, 55), M Parra (for Tillous-Borde, 55), R Tales (for Michalak, 55), A Dumoulin (for Bastareaud, 62).
Star man: Sean O'Brien (pictured)
Match Rating: 9/10
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)