By Mark Jones
Ireland 22, France 15
DUBLIN — No one was ignoring collective will, but last Saturday’s dramatic Six Nations rugby occasion at Lansdowne Road will be remembered as Brian O’Driscoll’s game. Ireland’s budding genius didn’t just score an outstanding, yet highly controversial try, and he didn’t just singlehandedly fillet the French defense, and he didn’t just produce one of the finest individual performances ever seen at international rugby’s oldest stadium, he also survived an almost unbearably heavy burden of expectation.
Because in the corresponding match in Paris last year, O’Driscoll had scored three magnificent tries to inspire Ireland to a historic victory and well, his country needed the 22-year-old to achieve something similar this time as the team attempted to build on its initial championship win against Italy in Rome.
But it turned out to be a case of pressure, what pressure? O’Driscoll played as if he hadn’t a care in the world, and the Irish players responded to secure back-to-back successes against France for the first time in 29 years. Ahead by 22-3 with half an hour remaining thanks to O’Driscoll’s try and 17 points from the boot of out-half Ronan O’Gara, the home side had to survive a sweeping French comeback that produced two late tries.
Along with England, who crushed Italy 80-33 at Twickenham, Ireland now lead the Six Nations table with a maximum return from two games. And if they can beat Wales, who drew 28-28 with Scotland, in Cardiff week from Saturday, then the eagerly awaited clash with the English at Lansdowne Road on March 24 could decide the championship.
Follow us on social media
Keep up to date with the latest news with The Irish Echo
But back to O’Driscoll.
"If he had been playing for France, we would have won," said the French coach, Bernard Laporte. "In O’Gara, O’Driscoll and Henderson, Ireland now have the best midfield in the world."
"O’Driscoll was about 80 percent of the Irish effort," suggested the losers’ center, Franck Comba. "He always managed to go forward and he hurt us badly on several occasions."
And such was the center’s majestic all-around contribution that France didn’t even bother to complain when his try was awarded. Following a surge by Rob Henderson, who continued from his three tries in Rome with another strong performance, David Wallace carried the movement into the French half and suddenly O’Driscoll was at his shoulder to burst onto an inside pass. In a millisecond, he was clear of two defenders and heading for the corner flag, where Xavier Garbajosa dived to make a last-ditch tackle. Knocked momentarily off balance, O’Driscoll lunged with his left arm and slammed the ball down.
The rules of rugby don’t just require a player to exert downward pressure on the ball to be awarded a try, they also call for the player to ground the ball properly. With the best will in the world, O’Driscoll lost control of the ball as he reached for the line and he most definitely failed to ground the ball properly. However, for the first time this season, the Six Nations has a fourth official — a video ref — to adjudicate on such incidents.
So, Brian Campsall of England had all the benefits of modern technology to view the "try" from a variety of angles. His decision was nearly three minutes in coming and most of the discerning pundits in a capacity 48,000 crowd presumed he was making absolutely sure he was correct in disallowing the score. Yet, for some reason best known to himself, Campsall called it good.
When the announcement came through, you could see from the body language of O’Driscoll and his teammates that this was like winning the lotto. O’Gara kicked a towering conversion from the touchline, he then added his fifth penalty to make it 22-3 and, notwithstanding their late flurry, France were beaten.
"If the fourth official gave it, then it had to be a try," O’Driscoll said with a twinkle.
"It was 100 percent a try," added Ireland captain, Keith Wood, also with a hint of a grin.
On the balance of probability, the Irish would have won anyway, such was their dominance for the first 60 minutes. Malcolm O’Kelly had destroyed the French line-out. Wallace, John Hayes and Wood were magnificent in the loose, O’Gara and Henderson peaked in midfield, and O’Driscoll taunted the French at every turn.
Yet, despite almost incessant pressure, it was only 9-3 at the interval as a combination of some strong defense by the visitors and indifferent passing by the scrum-half, Peter Stringer, blunted the Irish threat. But even if the decisive try should never have been awarded, there was no doubt about the class of the player who scored it.
IRELAND: G. Dempsey; D. Hickie, B. O’Driscoll, R. Henderson, T. Howe; R. O’Gara, P. Stringer; P. Clohessy, K. Wood, J. Hayes, M. O’Kelly, M. Galwey, A. Quinlan, D. Wallace, A. Foley. Subs: A. Ward for Quinlan; E. Byrne for Clohessy; G. Longwell for Galwey; K. Maggs for Henderson.