A last-minute try from winger Vincent Clerc snatched a dramatic 20-17 victory against Ireland at Croke Park.
When Ronan O’Gara kicked his fourth penalty to make it 17-13 with three minutes to go, the Irish looked set to take another step towards a Grand Slam. But as the 82,000 crowd began to celebrate, Ireland failed to claim the kick-off and seconds later Clerc shrugged off tackles from tighthead John Hayes and winger Denis Hickie to go over for the match-winning try.
In truth, Ireland shouldn’t have come close. Without influential captain Brian O’Driscoll and scrumhalf Peter Stringer, they were lucky not to trail by 20 points at the break.
The visitors deservedly held a 13-3 advantage after 15 minutes thanks to two penalties from flyhalf David Skrela and a try from hooker Raphael Ibanez, who darted inside Geordan Murphy’s pathetic tackle to score.
Yet somehow Ireland kept themselves in the game and chipped away at the deficit via a penalty and try from flyhalf Ronan O’Gara. The five-pointer came on the half hour mark when O’Gara overlapped on the wing after some great work from Shane Horgan and David Wallace.
France should have scored five minutes before the break when they had a three-man overlap on the left, but a stray Irish hand got in the way and the home side cleared for touch. Skrela then had a chance to add three points to his side’s total on the stroke of half-time, but pushed his attempt wide.
The French started the second half strongly, but again knocked on out wide when the try was on. A pass after the knock on was intercepted by Murphy who ran 90m to “score”. However, a sheepish looking Steve Walsh had blown his whistle too quickly and play came back for the scrum.
As if a switch had been flicked, Ireland suddenly gained the ascendancy, with O’Gara slotting a penalty to put the home side in front for the first time.
Skrela’s restart then failed to go 10m and seconds later he was replaced by former French U21 flyhalf Lionel Beauxis (who sunk the Baby Boks last year).
Referee Walsh made another controversial call in the 70th minute when he played a penalty advantage to Ireland, with Marcus Horan kicking ahead and knocking on when trying to regain possession. However, advantage had technically been played and the Irish probably should have purposely knocked on and taken the three points.
Minutes later, Beauxis’s drop goal attempt hit the right-hand upright, before another O’Gara made it a four-point ball game. But then came Clerc’s moment of magic that shattered a Grand Slam dream.
Ireland — Try: Ronan O’Gara. Penalties: O’Gara (4).
France – Tries: Raphael Ibanez, Vincent Clerc. Conversions: David Skrela, Lionel Beauxis. Penalties: Skrela (2).