This was undoubtedly Ireland’s day on the battlefield but, despite a fine win that secures safe passage to the kinder half of the knockout draw, their World Cup campaign may have suffered a series of grievous blows.
A bruising performance this certainly was and Joe Schmidt will be breathing an almighty sigh of relief that his side will not have to face the All Blacks in such potentially depleted circumstances. Instead it will be France who play New Zealand in the quarter-finals, a mouthwatering occasion that needs no big sell.
Ireland put everything into this display and, while they earned the vital points to set up a last-eight tie against Argentina, there could be consequences. Paul O’Connell and Johnny Sexton left the field in discomfort – the former especially so – while Sean O’Brien will surely face retrospective action for a reckless punch to the gut on Pascal Papé in the early stages.
One hopes this was not to be O’Connell’s last appearance in an Ireland jersey but Schmidt’s tone was pessimistic after the captain sustained a hamstring injury just before half-time. Both O’Connell and Sexton, who suffered an abductor problem, will have scans on Monday, but Schmidt revealed the fly-half was speaking positively about next weekend’s game.
“It doesn’t look great with Paul, it looks like an upper hamstring. We’re going to have to wait until tomorrow to give it a scan and make sure if the inflammation has increased a little bit. Johnny [Sexton’s injury] looked like an abductor to me, but that’s not the learned eye of a medic ,” said Schmidt.
“We are probably going to get Johnny scanned tomorrow and Pete O’Mahony as well. Pete’s [ankle twist] didn’t seem too bad, he was walking OK in the changing room and hopefully he’ll be OK. I’ve spoken briefly to Johnny and he’s already talking about next week. It’s probably Paul who is worrying me the most of those three.”
Asked if he expected O’Brien to face a ban, Schmidt said: “I truly hope not, I think he was being held at the time. He swung, I don’t think he was looking directly at the player. It’s not a closed fist. I’d be hopeful, but it’s not a decision for me. With the amount of injuries we have we cannot afford to lose another player.”
As the game wore on the list of casualties mounted, with green shirts limping off in varying degrees of pain, but it was during the first half when the more serious problems occurred. Jamie Heaslip said: “There are a lot of sore bodies in that changing room, the lads were physically and emotionally just drained.”
As half-time approached O’Connell – who will retire from international duty at the conclusion of this tournament – went down and stayed down, in significant discomfort and requiring a stretcher to take him from the field.
When a man of O’Connell’s stature is writhing in pain you know the problem must be serious. He managed to wave to the crowd who rose to their feet as he was carried off, but it will be a cruel twist of fate if that gesture turns out to be his final act in front of those fans he has enthralled so often. Irish hopes had been tempered early on following Sexton’s exit.
In fairness, the team coped extremely well in the fly-half’s absence but their hopes without him at this World Cup would be significantly hindered.
Sexton was already struggling after 20 minutes before the decisive hit that forced him off.
He had begun limping after chasing down a kick that had been deflected towards the wing, his own resulting tackle leaving him in some discomfort.
Still limping from that incident Sexton received the ball inside his own half down the right, flicking it on before receiving an almighty clout from Louis Picamoles. The big No8 flattened Sexton and soon enough he became Ireland’s first withdrawal of the match.
Ian Madigan stepped into Sexton’s shoes and performed admirably. A few kicks went awry, both penalty efforts and from hand, yet he played a key role in the move that almost led to the opening try of the match, had Keith Earls not squandered a glorious opportunity with a disastrous fumble.
O’Brien, awarded man of the match for his excellent performance, will surely face retrospective action for his vicious punch to the ribs on Papé in the first half. His impact on the game was greater than any other, but he should not have been on the pitch.
There were other Irish players substituted later in the game. O’Mahony took a knock when driving into a ruck, before Cian Healy and Earls were also withdrawn.
Thierry Dusautoir, the French captain, who was uncharacteristically quiet, described O’Connell as a giant of the game.
“I’m very sorry for him because he’s a huge player,” said Dusautoir. “Ireland will need him for the quarter-final but I don’t know what his injury is about. We have always had hard games against him. He’s a big warrior, I have a lot of respect for him. After Brian O’Driscoll it’s another big player who is leaving the Irish team.”
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