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Rugby World Cup: Ireland's best display comes with physical cost

By George Hook

Despite never winning the Web Ellis trophy in seven previous attempts, France have a pedigree at World Cup tournaments that very few teams can match.

Past performances and previous poor form has never been an issue where the French are concerned and their history in this event is littered with high-class casualties.

Certainly, one could make the argument that France have rode their luck during previous World Cups.

Four years ago, Marc Lievremont presided over an appalling run of form during the pool stage in New Zealand, before the French players took their destiny into their own hands to beat England in the quarter-final.

But for Sam Warburton's early red card in the semi-final in 2011, Wales would almost certainly have sent the French packing. With the extra man, France scraped through by a single point, before succumbing to the tournament hosts New Zealand in a tight and scrappy final.

And, when Jonathan Sexton limped off midway through the first half at the Millennium Stadium yesterday, after a monster hit by Louis Picamoles, one could be forgiven for thinking that the French luck was in once again.

To add insult to injury, and further compound Ireland's woes, Paul O'Connell had to be carried off at the half-time whistle with a suspected torn hamstring. Ireland's two most influential players gone inside the opening 40 minutes. Incredibly, Ireland never took a backward step.

A wise sage once said the prospect of being hanged concentrates the mind wonderfully. With the prospect of playing the All Blacks in the quarter-final if they lost this match, Ireland put past form behind them to disrupt France at every opportunity.

The result was a titanic opening 20 minutes in which the French dominated territory, but missed two kicks and Jonathan Sexton had a haul of six points from just two visits to the French half.

Ireland were much more efficient; Joe Schmidt's mantra of accuracy and patience coming to the fore, whereas the French seemed to be trying to win the game from the off. The best ball handlers in Europe lost an enormous amount of ball in possession.

Peter O'Mahony was a giant in those early stages, he epitomised the Irish courage and physical aggression. The Gallic response was magnificent and they played rugby in the great traditions of the country.

Ian Madigan, often unpredictable, stepped into the breach when Sexton went off and played with a composure and intelligence that belied his international experience.

Conor Murray was part of the Ireland performance. He passed quickly and without hesitation.

Once again, his kicking let him down. Not once did he put a French defender under pressure. Ireland went in to the second half without a kicking game. Could they survive?

They did more than survive, with an extraordinary opening six minutes. Once again, O'Mahony was at the cutting edge. He was backed up by Iain Henderson. The young men destroyed superior physical outfits by sheer force of belief.

It was an incredible performance, but it came with a monstrous physical toll.

O'Mahony went to the medical room and Sean O'Brien stood up to the plate and delivered a series of steals at the breakdown that defied all known previous form.

However, it is difficult to see how O'Brien will escape a citing for a punch on Pascal Pape in the first half.

The fourth official is bound to have picked it up and O'Brien faces a certain suspension.

A moment of madness has almost certainly ruled him out of the quarter-final. He will be a massive loss against Argentina.

The decision to push for a try with 10 minutes remaining, rather than take an easy drop goal to make it a two-score game, was a testament to the character in the team and the self-belief of the players.

Schmidt now enters the pantheon of great Irish coaches. He has silenced all the doubters, me included. The Irish game is now in the hands of a new group of young men that yesterday proved they are ready.

Paul O'Connell said last week that Ireland had held "nothing back" in their pool victories over Canada, Romania and Italy. He was wrong. The performance yesterday was above and beyond anything we have seen from Ireland this year.

We are now serious World Cup contenders.

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