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When Joe Schmidt's Ireland went to Paris and won the Six Nations

We reflect on the agonisingly tense Irish victory on the final day of the 2014 championship.

2000 IS JUSTIFIABLY seen as a major turning point for Irish rugby as the national team transformed from also-rans to consistent contenders.

A huge part of the shift was that year’s win against France in Paris, when Brian O’Driscoll’s hat-trick made him Ireland’s poster boy.

That victory at Stade de France certainly helped to change Irish players’ self-perceptions and ambitions, but it didn’t drastically alter Ireland’s results away to France in the years that followed.

Ireland were hammered 44-5 the next time they visited Paris in 2002 and the wait for their next win against les Bleus on French soil went on all the way until 2014.

fergus-mcfadden-brian-odriscoll-andrew-trimble-and-rob-kearney-celebrate-at-the-final-whistle Ireland celebrate their 2014 Six Nations triumph in Paris. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Joe Schmidt’s men had come into the 2014 Six Nations without major expectations around them.

Ireland had won just once in the 2013 championship in what was Declan Kidney’s last campaign in charge and though the near miss against the All Blacks in Dublin in November had lifted spirits, Ireland weren’t heavily fancied for the 2014 Six Nations.

But Schmidt’s men claimed Ireland’s first title since the 2009 Grand Slam, securing their trophy in nail-biting fashion in Paris in the final game of the championship.

Ireland had opened the 2014 campaign with home wins over Scotland and Wales before a 13-10 defeat away to England in round three. A seven-try victory over Italy prepared them for the final-round visit to Stade de France.

The French needed to beat Ireland by 70 points to claim the title, but England were the ones in line to benefit from an Irish slip-up as they had faced Italy away from home earlier in the day.

A 52-11 win for England meant Ireland still had a better points difference, so Schmidt’s men knew a win of any kind would secure them the title. Lose and it was England’s.

With Steve Walsh on the whistle, there was a 6pm kick-off in Paris, where Ireland’s team showed just one change from the win over Italy.

Peter O’Mahony returned from injury to take his spot at blindside flanker, with Iain Henderson dropping onto the bench.

Schmidt also brought Leinster’s Ian Madigan onto the bench in place of Ulster’s Paddy Jackson, who had been involved in the previous four games.

IRELAND: Rob Kearney; Andrew Trimble, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Dave Kearney; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray: Cian Healy, Rory Best, Mike Ross; Devin Toner, Paul O’Connell (captain) Peter O’Mahony, Chris Henry, Jamie Heaslip.

Replacements: Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath, Marty Moore, Iain Henderson, Jordi Murphy, Eoin Reddan, Ian Madigan, Fergus McFadden.

The French lined out as follows.

FRANCE: Brice Dulin; Yoann Huget, Mathieu Bastareaud, Gaël Fickou, Maxime Medard; Remi Tales, Maxime Machenaud; Thomas Domingo, Dimitri Szarzewski, Nicolas Mas, Pascal Pape (captain), Yoann Maestri, Louis Picamoles, Alexandre Lapandry, Damien Chouly.

Replacements: Guilhem Guirado, Vincent Debaty, Rabah Slimani, Anthony Flanquart, Sébastien Vahaamahina, Wensceslas Lauret, Jean-Marc Doussain, Maxime Mermoz.

After much of the pre-match coverage had focused on O’Driscoll, who was playing for his country for the last time, Ireland endured a worrying start to the game.

25-year-old Mathieu Bastareaud, then at his peak as he helped Toulon to win three Heineken Cups in a row, made a powerful early impression for the French.

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The surge above brought les Bleus into promising territory as Ireland failed to execute the choke tackle and just a phase later, Chris Henry was pinged for failing to show a clear release before jackaling over the ball.

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Henry was perhaps unlucky but France took advantage as scrum-half Maxime Machenaud slotted the three points to give the hosts a second-minute lead.

Just a minute later, alarm bells were ringing again for Ireland as Bastareaud did more damage.

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Straight from a lineout platform, the French outside centre bursts in between Ireland’s midfield pairing.

Gordon D’Arcy opts for a high tackle focus on Bastareaud…

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… but the Frenchman uses his right arm to break any chance D’Arcy has of getting a grip on him. O’Driscoll attempts to bite in and rescue the situation but is also high on ‘Basta,’ who simply shrugs off the second challenge.

Fortunately for Ireland, Bastareaud’s pass is clearly forward as Dave Kearney closes up on him and Schmidt can breath a sigh of relief.

Ireland settle themselves into the game, with an 11th-minute scrum penalty providing a boost, but after a promising half-break by Dave Kearney off a Johnny Sexton inside pass, Cian Healy knocks-on to waste good field position.

A huge hit by Damien Chouly on D’Arcy on the next Ireland attack forces a second turnover, leading to more pressure in the visitors’ half and Dave Kearney being pinged for failing to release the ball after being tackled, instead getting back to his feet.

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Again, Machenaud was on target and the French had a 6-0 lead in the 15th minute.

Ireland needed a strong response and, fittingly, it came from out-half Sexton and captain Paul O’Connell, who combined on the restart.

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The accuracy of Sexton’s kick, just over the 10-metre line and with enough hang time, allows O’Connell to race after it and win the ball back, O’Mahony claiming the ball as it bobbles back on Ireland’s side.

It’s a hit of momentum for Ireland and though it doesn’t lead directly to a score, Sexton and O’Connell lift their team-mates.

A second scrum penalty for Ireland over on tighthead Mike Ross’ side, as Thomas Domingo’s elbow goes to ground, is another significant boost.

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That penalty allows Ireland to kick up the right touchline into the French 22 and they score from the resulting lineout.

The Ireland try starts with Murray making a half-break off the set-piece platform.

Murray starts on the five-metre line at a 7+1 lineout but works infield [white below] as the ball is thrown in by Rory Best.

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Healy and Jamie Heaslip start at the front of the lineout but are tasked with breaking beyond the 15-metre line [as indicated in red above], getting outside Murray.

Their job is to draw France ‘tailgunner’ Dimitri Szarzewski [yellow above] off Murray too, buying him time on the ball.

As we can see below, the plan comes off as Murray dummies a pass and darts to the inside of Szarzewski.

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Ireland use a dummy maul here with the aim of tying in the French lineout forwards before Henry transfers the ball to Murray in motion.

We can see below that tighthead Ross tries to briefly hold Louis Picamoles into that dummy maul.

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Picamoles breaks free and ends up tackling Murray but even that ever-so-slight delay helps with Ireland’s pre-planned play.

Ireland are left just 10 metres out from the tryline and now they shift into their effective one-out rugby inside the opposition 22.

Two superb Healy carries are particularly important over there next 11 phases as Ireland inch their way forward, while O’Driscoll is involved in throwing a clever link pass to Henry soon before the score.

It’s the Ulsterman who creates the opening for the try, though, with a superb offload – something that was very rare in Ireland’s game in the 2014 Six Nations.

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It’s a wonderful but of skill from Henry as the French defence switches off.

The initial spacing between Machenaud and Bastareaud is far from ideal.

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Henry recognises the opportunity and cleverly picks to carry at Machenaud, drawing him in and accentuating the space on his outside.

Henry’s offload finds Sexton and the Ireland out-half accelerates to the inside of the seemingly surprised Bastareaud before finishing past Domingo and Picamoles.

Sexton is wide with the relatively straightforward conversion chance but Ireland are finally in the game, trailing 7-6 with 22 minutes played.

A poor error from Picamoles provides the platform for Ireland to hit the front.

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The knock-on comes from a clearing kick by Murray and it hands Ireland another set-piece opportunity, as they once again strike superbly with a pre-planned Schmidt play from the right-hand-side scrum just inside France’s 10-metre line.

The angle of the Irish scrum is part of the plan here. 

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It’s not actually the most solid platform for Ireland but they’re primarily interested in getting Healy ‘s loosehead side up [indicated in red above], rotating the French pack towards the touchline.

Even after the ball is cleared, we can see the Irish scrum continuing to rotate…

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While French openside Chouly breaks off the scrum along with Ireland’s back row, the Irish front five are looking to ensure that none of the other players in France’s back row can get off the scrum early to involve themselves in the defence.

It’s crucial, as we will see on second phase.

The first phase off the scrum involves a clever dummy loop play from Ireland as Sexton hits O’Driscoll with a skip pass and then follows D’Arcy in wrapping underneath O’Driscoll.

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The movement from Sexton and D’Arcy draws Bastareaud [as indicated in white below] away from committing onto O’Driscoll’s direct line, as the French centre worries about a return pass.

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That allows O’Driscoll to thunder into France out-half Remi Tales in a one-on-one situation, giving Ireland a big gainline and also a lighting-quick recycle for second phase, which is also vital.

As we can see below, Machenaud and Chouly [red] have folded around the corner after working across from the scrum.

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Because of the angle of Ireland’s scrum and poor French work-rate, the next defender due to arrive from the scrum – Picamoles at number eight – is nowhere to be seen and the gap for Ireland is yawning. We can even see D’Arcy pointing to it above.

Right wing Andrew Trimble [white above] has worked infield from a starting position on the blindside of the scrum, offering Murray an option to his right.

The Ireland scrum-half does bounce back against the grain but carries into the space himself.

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At the very start of the clip above, note how Sexton and then Henry both attempt to subtly impede Machenaud as he races back over to the left side of the defensive breakdown.

Murray then takes advantage of Machenaud’s eagerness by dummying and stepping back inside him to break. 

Picamoles is coming from the scrum to Murray’s right as Maxime Medard and Brice Dulin both close inwards on him in the French backfield.

Murray

As we can see above, Murray has Sexton and D’Arcy to his left after they have worked through in support but hitting Trimble is the smartest option and the Ireland scrum-half calmly but powerfully fires his pass across the face of Medard to tee up a wonderful score.

With Sexton converting, Ireland lead for the first time at 12-6.

But the French aren’t going to roll over. A brilliant Bastareaud turnover penalty at the breakdown allows them to kick to within five metres of the Irish tryline and with penalty advantage playing, Tales cross-kicks…

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Right wing Yoann Huget does superbly to leap and bat the ball back inside, where fullback Dulin gathers it to dot down. 

Machenaud’s excellent conversion means France retake the lead at 13-12.

Tales soon misses with a drop-goal attempt but a third Irish scrum penalty, again on Domingo’s side, gives them a final opportunity in the first half. 

Ireland run the same lineout play we saw for their first try – only this time Murray cleverly slips Heaslip into space – and they win a penalty but again Sexton’s kick is surprisingly wide.

Trailing at the break and with the Six Nations title on the line, Ireland’s start to the second half is edgy.

But the nerves are settled with a stunning try on counter-attack after Huget knocks-on Bastareaud’s forced offload on the right touchline just outside Ireland’s 22.

Rob Kearney gathers the ball and kick-starts the counter by beating a defender.

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Ireland could perhaps flash the ball immediately wide right against the suddenly narrow French defence but instead Healy carries to provide further go-forward.

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With quick ball and Sexton back at first receiver now, Ireland are ready to strike.

Accurate passes from Murray, Sexton and D’Arcy [who Best] send the ball into space out on the right.

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As the ball is being moved, we can see the intelligence of O’Connell [white below] as he works upfield ahead of the ball, anticipating the linebreak.

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Sexton does similar after his pass, again underlining the Irish players’ work-rate.

Upon receiving the ball, Trimble recognises that French second row Pascal Papé [red below] – relatively slow and immobile – is the second last defender, so therefore tasked with tackling him.

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Trimble takes his opportunity, shaping to pass to O’Driscoll on his right but instead accelerating outside Papé.

Medard has to initially worry about O’Driscoll and can’t make the tackle as he turns in late.

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Having broken the initial French defence, Trimble attempts to draw in last man Dulin but the fullback does superbly to keep himself alive and not bite into the tackle.

O’Driscoll beats Dulin after receiving the pass from Trimble but the retreating Medard hauls him to the ground to prevent the score.

Ireland’s support players do the rest.

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As we can see above, Trimble resources the breakdown before O’Connell – having worked cleverly to get upfield – picks and attempts to finish himself, supported by Best.

Szarzewski and Dulin – who is arguably offside – manage to stop O’Connell but Ireland score on the next phase.

Note below how Trimble once again impedes a defender, this time Medard getting off the ground, in a bid to buy time for a team-mate. It’s illegal play but difficult to spot live.

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Sexton has been waiting calmly to the left of the ruck, which D’Arcy helps to clear out, and though Yoann Maestri retreats into the defensive line, Murray takes a couple of steps left to draw up Huget before popping the ball for his out-half to finish the score.

Sexton’s conversion leaves Ireland 19-13 in front with well over half an hour to play, as Schmidt’s men look to their kicking game to apply pressure.

They get success in the instance below as Murray hangs the ball over Picamoles in the backfield again.

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As we can see above, there is no ‘escorting’ by the French players in front of Trimble, whose aggressive chase and mid-air contest with Picamoles forces the knock-on.

It’s something Ireland did superbly throughout this Six Nations but the development of escorting strategies has made the aerial contest under box kicks far more difficult ever since.

Some poor French discipline allows Ireland to extend their lead in the 53rd minute, Maestri’s needless infringement at a defensive maul allowing Sexton a shot at goal.

Having already missed two kicks at goal from essentially the same position on the right-hand 15-metre line, Sexton holds his nerve this time to open up a crucial nine-point gap.

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Ireland focus on kicking for territory in the minutes that follow but the French work their way back into the 22 via a penalty for D’Arcy’s tackle off the ball and make their visit count after an intense period of pressure.

Hooker Szarzewski is the man awarded the try by referee Walsh but, as we can see below, the score shouldn’t have been awarded.

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Walsh awards the try for what he feels is Szarzewski grounding the ball against the base of the post, but we can see that the Frenchman knocks-on in the process.

The referee immediately awards the try without a review involving the television match official, however, and Machenaud’s conversion draws the French back to within two points.

Ireland have 17 minutes to see out their victory but there are moments where it looks like they have cracked.

With a raft of changes in each side, Ireland’s scrum suddenly becomes a weakness, while they lose Sexton to a serious head injury as he attempts to tackle Bastareaud.

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Leading with the elbow is a hot topic in the game today, with regular red cards for the offence, but in this instance Ireland simply get a scrum for Bastareaud’s knock-on in the collision.

Sexton is stretched off the field, depriving Ireland of one of their key leaders for the closing 12 minutes.

And from this very scrum, Ireland concede another penalty as the tide truly turns in that area.

France replacement Jean-Marc Doussain has a prime opportunity to kick his team in front but he lets Ireland off the hook.

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Some strong kicking by replacement scrum-half Eoin Reddan, sub out-half Ian Madigan, and Rob Kearney allows Ireland to push the game back into France’s half in the agonising minutes that follow.

But Ireland still need last-gasp interventions to see them over the line.

France manufacture a brilliant opportunity in the 79th-minute and their supporters riotously celebrate what they think is the winning try.

However, Dave Kearney’s pressure as the last defender for Ireland saves the day.

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Kearney does an excellent job of closing up hard on the edge to put serious pressure on Papé, who has Chouly unmarked outside him.

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While Chouly goes to finish, the forward pass from Papé under pressure seems clear.

Walsh calls on his TMO, Gareth Simmons, this time and there are nail-biting moments for Ireland supporters as Walsh says, “It definitely drifts forward, does it leave his hands forward? Or is it flat and then drifts forward? Can you give me clarity on that, please?”

Schmidt and co. in the stands are in no doubt…

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Walsh finally says, “Forward pass, mate, I’ve got it” as the replays flash up and he awards Ireland the scrum that should signal the end of the contest with just a minute remaining.

But, incredibly, Ireland get shunted backwards at the scrum, sub France loosehead Vincent Debaty stepping out and driving in on opposite man Marty Moore to lead the surge.

The French play off the scrum but with Irish hearts in mouths, Schmidt’s men fittingly produce the kind of choke tackle turnover that had been perfected under defence coach Les Kiss.

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Sébastien Vahaamahina is the man to carry for France but Henry and Devin Toner initiate the choke tackle before O’Connell joins the fray.

Replacements Iain Henderson, Sean Cronin and Moore all flood in too, as does Heaslip, as Ireland bring it to ground for the turnover.

Walsh’s final whistle comes as sweet relief for Ireland and sparks their Six Nations title celebrations in the Parisian night.

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Murray Kinsella

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