It has been years since the championship last had a match between the two best teams in the world and if you didn’t know that Ireland and France were going to square off again this time next year you might say it would be years more before it ever throws up another contest quite like the one they played out here in Dublin.
They will be talking about it around these parts for as long as they are still playing the game, at any rate. It was Ireland’s first victory against France in three years, and the first, by anyone, anywhere, since the summer of 2021.
And it will stand the retelling, again and again, but often as they do they still will not quite be able to capture exactly how James Lowe contorted himself as he bent around the corner flag to score, do justice to Antoine Dupont’s miraculous tackle on Mack Hansen, Damian Penaud’s mad dash for the line or almost everything Caelan Doris did on the field.
The first half in particular was one of the great stretches of Test match rugby and if the second period did not quite match it, not much in the game ever has.
It was a half that spun and twisted in the wind, all wild breaks, walloping collisions, frantic tackles and fingertip passes. The lead changed hands three times in the first 20 minutes, an early penalty by Thomas Ramos provoked an Irish sally into France’s 22, Ramos fumbled a kick ahead from Lowe and that one little mistake started a chain of events that led to the try.
Ramos ended up carrying the ball into touch. Andrew Porter barrelled over from the lineout, but the ball was held up beneath him. While France were still drawing breath from that defensive set they were undone all of a sudden by Finlay Bealham’s cute inside pass to Hugo Keenan. He cut through past the motionless Uini Atonio to score Ireland’s first try.
Another penalty cut the lead to one point, then Damian Penaud snatched it back with one of the great freewheeling tries. It was born out of utter chaos. Romain Ntamack gathered Hansen’s chip ahead then ran near smack bang into the referee, Wayne Barnes. Ntamack caught himself, but could not save his pass. It flew loose to Ramos, who flicked it to Penaud. He broke downfield. Ireland’s lines split open in front of him, like a marching band parting for a runaway car. Penaud passed to Anthony Jelonch, who threw an offload back to Penaud who had drifted across on to his other shoulder. Penaud pressed on again past two tackles and scored in the far corner.
Everyone was still waiting for the replays on the big screens when France got themselves into trouble from the restart. Ntamack’s clearance was charged down and a long pass put Lowe through on the left. Penaud scrambled back to catch him, but Lowe twisted his body around the flag as he dived over the line. The toe of his trailing boot was ever so close to touch when he slapped the ball down and it took umpteen replays before the refereeing team decided to award the try.
That made it 13-12 and the game lurched further Ireland’s way when Atonio was shown a yellow card for a high tackle on Rob Herring, who left the field with a brain injury. Porter scored off the back of the ensuing scrum.
Ireland would have had another after Hansen grabbed an interception, but for that tackle by Dupont. Hansen released the ball to Keenan, who chased his own kick right up to tryline. Hansen got his hands on it and only had a yard or so to make when Dupont hit him from behind and held him there, one foot in the air, like his boots had turned into blocks of concrete beneath him. Instead, Ireland settled for another penalty that made 22-16 at half-time.
It stayed that way through much of the second half, when the game had an altogether different flavour. France are not often behind at the break, it has happened twice in their past 14 Tests, and Ireland were too ruthless to let them get away with it this time. It was as if the French had spent everything they had and come to the grim realisation that it was not going to be enough for them.
They made a couple of breaks, but only had a drop goal to show for them. Ireland had chances of their own, they were held up twice after barrelling over from a couple of attacking lineouts. They finally finished France off when Garry Ringrose wriggled through two tackles to score in the left corner.
It was a match that stretched every last sinew, bruised every last bone and drew every last breath, so when it was all over the 57,000 fans inside the stadium had just enough sense left to mutter “well bloody hell” to themselves, and “bloody hell” again to their neighbours.