France winger Vincent Clerc once again proved fatal to Irish rugby as he ran in a hat-trick of first-half tries.
France winger Vincent Clerc once again proved fatal to Irish rugby as he ran in a hat-trick of first-half tries to inspire the French to a 26-21 victory over Ireland in their Six Nations clash at the Stade de France here on Saturday.
The 26-year-old flyer - who would not have played had Julien Malzieu not been injured - notched up his sixth try in the last three Tests against the Irish as the French stayed on course for the Grand Slam against a much improved Ireland outfit.
Cedric Heymans grabbed the other try for France while the Irish stormed back in the second-half with two tries, one a penalty and the other by flanker David Wallace.
"It was a very special match because we had a very good first half. We were a little afraid of the Irish in the second half but we stayed confident as we are a young team," said Clerc.
"Heyman's try came off a lucky bounce but they are the breaks you get in sport. We played well. A weaker team would have laid down and taken a beating."
The Irish got away with a dreadfully lax piece of defending in the third minute when, having been deep inside the French 22, they allowed Aurelien Rougerie to run the ball back into their own territory and win a penalty.
However, the normally reliable Jean-Baptiste Elissalde missed a fairly simple kick.
The Irish produced some flowing and piercing attacks and were encamped in French territory for most of the first 15 minutes but were undone when French captain Lionel Nallet stole the ball, Elissalde produced a delightful kick over the defence and Clerc easily outsprinted Denis Leamy - right wing Geordan Murphy having been sucked into a ruck - to touch down.
Elissalde converted to make it 7-0 but the Irish deservedly got their first points with a penalty by O'Gara in the 18th minute.However, their bete noir Clerc was on hand almost immediately to touch down again after great work by David Skrela, who dummied Murphy out on the right and then delivered the perfect pass to Clerc. Elissalde failed with the difficult conversion.
O'Gara reduced the gap to 12-6 with 10 minutes remaining of the first-half but realistically the Irish should have been a lot closer if Eoin Reddan hadn't thrown an appalling pass out to Robert Kearney with the visitors holding an advantage of three players to none.
It was the French, however, who executed their chances clinically and the Irish having again lost the ball in midfield paid for it as Clerc ran in his third try, beautifully set up by Toulouse team-mate Cedric Heymans with Murphy once again absent from his wing.
Elissalde converted to make it 19-6.Ireland went further behind 10 minutes into the second-half - they had already criminally lost two lineouts on their own throw - when Elissalde's grubber kick took a fortunate bounce off Brian O'Driscoll's nether regions and Heymans pounced to pick the ball up and run it in under the posts.
Elissalde again converted to make it 26-6.
The visitors fought back valiantly and reduced the deficit when referee Nigel Owens awarded them a penalty try after French prop Julien Brugnaut was twice adjudged at fault for bringing down his opposite number in the scrum. O'Gara converted to make it 26-13 with just over 20 minutes remaining.
Astonishingly the Irish were well back in the match two minutes later as Wallace burrowed over for their second try and his eighth in 42 tests. O'Gara for once sent his kick wide of the posts.
He was to bring the Irish to within five points near the end with a penalty but one last desperate effort by the Irish ended with the ball in touch.