CARDIFF, Wales (AP) Ireland avoided a Rugby World Cup quarterfinal against the defending champion All Blacks by beating France 24-9 to secure first place in Pool D on Sunday – but an impressive victory came at a cost for the Six Nations champions.
Star flyhalf Jonny Sexton, captain Paul O’Connell and flanker Peter O’Mahony all went off injured – the latter two on motorized stretchers – to potentially leave the Irish without three of their most important players for a last-eight game against Argentina next Sunday.
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt said O’Connell’s hamstring injury was the most serious of the three, and it could end the international career of one of the greatest players to wear the Irish green. The 35-year-old lock is quitting test rugby after the World Cup.
Raising their intensity to levels previously unseen from them this tournament, the Irish overcame the injuries to lead 9-6 at halftime and then score tries through fullback Rob Kearney and scrumhalf Conor Murray. The noise and the predominance of green under the Millennium Stadium’s closed roof made it feel like the game could have been in Dublin.
“It was a battle that was attritional but showed the character of the side,” Schmidt said.
Ireland won all four of its pool games, justifying its pre-World Cup tag of Europe’s leading contender.
As for the French, they were blown away after the break and their first loss in the pool stage set up a quarterfinal against New Zealand, back in Cardiff on Saturday. Eight years ago, the teams met at the same stage, in the same stadium and on the same night – and France won 20-18 in one of the most memorable wins at a World Cup. France also upstaged New Zealand in the 1999 World Cup semifinals, and had a narrow defeat in the final four years ago.
“You have to believe,” said France captain Thierry Dusautoir, who was a stand-out in the 2007 match. “I have played 11 or 12 times against the All Blacks, and not once we have been favorites but it didn’t stop us from beating them.”
France’s points on Sunday came from three penalties, and the team didn’t come close to scoring a try.
“Ireland were quite exceptional and disciplined in all the phases of play,” France coach Philippe Saint-Andre said.
Many pundits predicted the Irish had been saving themselves for this game and it looked that way. They produced easily their best, most intense performance of the World Cup but there was collateral damage.
Sexton had already been winded when he was smashed by a perfectly timed tackle from France No. 8 Louis Picamoles in the 24th minute. After receiving lengthy treatment, he was taken off with what Schmidt said was an adductor problem.
O’Connell’s injury is worse. He clutched the back of his right leg, slammed his right hand against the ground and writhed in pain after getting hurt at a ruck in the final move of the first half.
O’Mahony, a first-choice flanker of growing influence, was taken off in the 55th after his knee appeared to buckle following Pascal Pape’s tackle. Schmidt said O’Mahony’s injury was either a “twisted knee or ankle” but that he was walking about in the dressing room.
Ireland also could potentially lose flanker Sean O’Brien for the quarterfinals, after he struck Pape in the stomach after barely 30 seconds of the game and could now be cited.
An absorbing first half, short on running rugby but packed with brutal hits, finished with the Irish leading by three points but they should have been further ahead. Keith Earls dropped the ball from Tommy Bowe’s pass with the try-line seemingly open, following the only clean break of the first 40 minutes.
Ireland’s players were rampant at the start of the second half and pinned France back. Robbie Henshaw left Mathieu Bastareaud clutching at thin air and ran 40 meters before being tackled near the line. After a series of phases, Kearney ran onto Murray’s pass, through Frederic Michalak, and grounded.
Ian Madigan, Sexton’s replacement, couldn’t convert but Ireland was 14-6 ahead – a big lead in this type of game.
Morgan Parra’s penalty reduced the deficit but the influential Murray touched down next to the posts in the 72nd after more relentless pressure. By the time Madigan’s penalty wrapped up the scoring, France was well beaten.