CARDIFF: Ireland survived the loss of captain Paul O’Connell and flyhalf Johnny Sexton to run out 24-9 winners over France and set up a Rugby World Cup quarter-final against Argentina after a brutal Pool D decider on Sunday.
Second-half tries from fullback Rob Kearney and scrumhalf Conor Murray gave the Six Nations champions a victory they fully deserved and sent the French into a quarter-final against reigning champions New Zealand back in Cardiff next weekend.
The Irish will also return to the Welsh capital to face the Pumas next Sunday but could be without O’Connell and Sexton, who both left the pitch through injury before halftime, as well as flanker Peter O’Mahony, who was injured after the break.
France, with skipper Thierry Dusautoir and number eight Louis Picamoles leading from the front, tackled like demons but looked almost devoid of any creativity in the backs and never looked like crossing the Irish line.
The roof of the Millennium Stadium was closed but Ireland’s fans in the crowd of 72,163 nearly took it off with a passionate rendition of “Ireland’s Call” and the Irish players responded by tearing into the early exchanges.
Twice Sexton kicked Ireland ahead but twice France fullback Scott Spedding levelled the scores from long range, the second penalty from a metre or two inside his own half.
In the 24th minute, though, Sexton pulled up gingerly after a tackle and had treatment on what looked like a groin problem. A minute later his game was over after Picamoles smashed into his ribs.
Sexton’s replacement Ian Madigan put Ireland 9-3 ahead with his first attempt at goal and almost set up the first try of the match when his pass sent winger Tommy Bowe through a gap in the defensive line.
Bowe charged 40 metres towards the remaining French defender and got his pass away to Keith Earls, only for the outside centre to spill the ball with the line at his mercy.
A frenetic first half looked to be set to come to a close without further incident when O’Connell failed to get back to his feet after a ruck and, clearly fearing his World Cup was over, had to be carried from the pitch on a stretcher.
The Irish moved further ahead in the 50th minute when, after a scything break from centre Robbie Henshaw had taken Ireland to the French line, Kearney crashed through one tackler and touched down in the embrace of another.
The Irish celebration was deafening but subsided into supportive applause only a few minutes later when O’Mahony caught his studs in the turf and became the second Irishman to be taken off the pitch on a stretcher.
Replacement Morgan Parra cut the deficit with France’s third penalty in the 64th minute but Ireland got their second try eight minutes later when the pack forced their way to the France line and Murray touched down on the padding of the post.
Madigan added the extras and slotted another penalty to seal the victory three minutes from time.