Trailing 22-7 early in the second half after something of a physical pounding in the first, this young Irish side responded with as good a second-half performance as they’ve arguably produced in this stadium.
In the end, hopes of a Grand Slam are gone after this defeat, which leaves the French in pole position to win a coveted first title since 2010, but Ireland were full value for what could yet be a significant bonus point.
Yes, there were many mistakes, but if nothing else they died with their boots on, staying true to their brand of inventive running rugby and demonstrating it can trouble the best of defences. French joy at the death was undoubtedly tinged with a huge sense of relief as they been serious stretched from what had seemed a commanding position.
That said, Ireland turned down the chance to go to the corner a third time inside the last 10 minutes when trailing by six, a decision they will certainly review, to better reward their second-half display.
Ireland upped their accuracy in their clear-outs and handling, and fronted up in the collisions where previously they’d been second best. Heroes abounded and it wouldn’t be stretching things to say that the immense Dan Sheehan, a 26th-minute replacement for Rónan Kelleher with what appeared to be a shoulder injury, came of age as a Test player.
Indeed, Andrew Porter and Tadhg Furlong also stuck manfully to their task, and perhaps most encouragingly of all Joey Carbery pulled the strings calmly at outhalf in looking very much the part of an Irish playmaker.
And all this despite some damaging early blows.
Playing their first away game in front of a crowd for two years since the pre-pandemic defeat in Twickenham, the degree to which Ireland could keep the Stade de France cauldron relatively quiet was always going to be a barometer of how they were subduing Les Bleus.
In the event, after a typically rousing rendition of Les Marseillaise, the home crowd were celebrating the opening try within 70 seconds of Romain Ntamack’s kick-off.
France countered infield off a quick throw by Dupont to Ntamack and Yoram Moefana stepped Garry Ringrose with some nice footwork to put them on the front foot. When the ball went back to the right a few phases later the man mountain Uini Atonio burst through Mack Hansen and took the tackle of Jack Conan to crash over the gainline. Two phases later, Ntamack took Conan’s tackle to free his hands for the inside offload to his buddy Dupont for a trademark finish by the scrumhalf.
Melvyn Jaminet converted and landed a penalty but he was culpable for conceding a soft seven-point riposte when Damian Penaud left Carbery’s hanging restart for him. Rooted to the ground, Jaminet was beaten to the ball by the leaping Hansen on the run, who sauntered over untouched for an unusual if sharp and opportunistic try.
Carbery, who settled into the game nicely, landed the touchline conversion and The Fields echoed around the stadium to a volume which suggested there were a good deal more than the official allocation of 4,000 Irish in attendance.
Ireland continued to play their nuanced running game close to the gainline, but against France’s greater physicality they were often stopped dead or driven back in contact, or their handling cracked under the heightened pressure.
A prime example was a lineout take by Caelan Doris going to the deck where Conan cleared up but Kelleher couldn’t complete the clearout on an immovable Paul Willemse and Jaminet made it 13-7.
Whenever Ireland built momentum, they usually erred, as when a Jamison Gibson-Park pass slipped through Kelleher’s fingers and Gabin Villière kicked downfield. On another occasion, Carbery’s wrap created space on the outside but his well-weighted grubber, but alas was angled over the touchline.
France were guilty of handling errors and turnovers too, but were bossing the collision. That much was underlined by when Villière marched first Bundee Aki and then Hugo Keenan backwards.
Their other problem was Angus Gardner. As suspected, last week’s assistant referee was never likely to permit Ireland going 50-odd minutes without conceding a penalty and it seemed as if Gardner had a pre-ordained plan to watch Porter’s scrummaging, or had been alerted to something.
The 8-3 first-half penalty count had a big bearing on the exchanges, and one against Andrew Conway for what seemed a legitimate aerial challenge with Jaminet was nonsense.
Dupont took out three Irish players with a long, flat skip pass to Penaud, who stepped inside Gibson-Park, in the build-up to another Jaminet penalty and when Keenan kicked the ball dead from inside his10-metre line it led to another scrum penalty for Jaminet to make it 19-7 at half-time.
Another followed after the resumption from 50 metres when Conway was in front of Gibson-Park’s box kick and it seemed Ireland had a mountain to climb. So they began climbing it.
Porter won a penalty in the jackal and Carbery kicked to the corner. Doris gathered, the French counter-drive took most of their pack out of the equation and Josh van der Flier peeled off to score with a little help from Doris.
Ireland were unlucky that Gardner curiously decreed a penalty advantage was used up when Gibson-Park grubbered through after Ringrose and Sheehan had linked, and there was a lovely triangle for Gibson-Park to put Hansen through a gap but not for the first time France counter-rucked for a turnover.
Within five minutes, after a huge break by Keenan, Ireland struck again after a passage of what has now become their trademark running rugby before going to the corner again and carrying hard from the catch-and-drive. Gibson-Park spotted an inviting gap on the edge which although Willemse filled he stepped the big lock so score sharply.
Again Carbery converted and suddenly it was a one-point game.
The French crowd roused their team in their moment of crisis and they responded. Villière bounced Carbery before Penaud stepped both Keenan and Conway in the tightest of touchline corridors. Although he was tackled into touch and Sheehan threw long for Doris to gather, the ball squirted out the wrong side off an Irish heel. A sequence of French charges ended with Cyril Baille crashing over although Jaminet for once missed the conversion.
When Thibaud Flament then went off his fe