The mark of a good team is the ability to win even when they are not at playing at their best, and Ireland’s hard-fought victory over France on Saturday night was a prime example. Ireland’s game plan was apparent from the opening minutes: control possession and territory, dictate the tempo, kick to the corners, and go for the bonus point. They looked set to do so until poor weather conditions and a somewhat spirited French effort forced them to alter their tactics and grind out a win that required determination and intelligence by the bucketload. If there was one moment that epitomised Ireland’s doggedness, it was Keith Earls’ courageous hit on the beastly Uini Atonio, who is 12 stone heavier than him:
Going for the Jugular
Ireland’s goal of securing a bonus point was understandable; an extra point in one of their last three games would be a huge boost to their Championship hopes, and they were more likely to put four tries on a French team that still have issues with their fitness, than against the highly organised Welsh and English blitz defences. They kicked short off both of their restarts in the first half in order to retain possession, and they went wide early and often, with frequent use of the outside-inside ball to keep the French defenders changing direction:
Ireland’s attack was well-varied, and made use of each weapon in their armoury. Tadhg Furlong, CJ Stander and Robbie Henshaw were used to barrel up through the middle of France, before the ball was spread wide, where Garry Ringrose was quite incisive. Jamie Heaslip was positioned on the wing numerous times, and interplayed effectively with Simon Zebo and Keith Earls to make inroads in the five-metre channel:
The deteriorating conditions helped and hindered Ireland at the same time. They made handling difficult for a French side who were looking to move the ball wide from every turnover, reducing the threat of their wide movements and counterattacks:
France did enjoy excursions down the touch lines, where Gaël Fickou and Yoann Huget looked dangerous, and the helter-skelter period in the second half could have been avoided, but Ireland’s defensive reorganisation was always up to the task. The quality of their line speed, coupled with the weather, pressurised France into several handling errors, meaning they could only play in fits and starts.
At the same time, the rain also stymied Ireland’s ability to score tries, with their frustrating inaccuracy at the final phase resurfacing:
The inability to convert visits to the red zone into scores in the first half led to a change in tactics from Joe Schmidt at the break, and in the second 40, Ireland kicked for territory and took every opportunity for three points that came their way. On a dry day, Ireland could well have racked up four tries, and not doing so may cost them dearly by the end of the tournament, but it was a pragmatic decision from the management to win first and foremost, before looking for anything more.
A major factor in Ireland executing their wet day game plan in the second half was their lineout functioning to near-perfection under French pressure, given how much of a handful Rabah Slimani was in the scrums. France have some fairly tall timber in their ranks, with Sébastien Vahaamahina (6’7½”), Yoann Maestri (6’7½”) and Bernard Le Roux (6’5½”) all being competent defensive jumpers. Ireland’s ability to cope with them was heartening, considering the amount of strife Scotland caused them in this facet of play in the first round:
The throwing from Rory Best and Niall Scannell was out of the top drawer (even if there were one or two slight overthrows from the former), but a key reason behind the stabilisation of Ireland’s lineout has been the restoration of Donnacha Ryan to their starting pack, and as a result, he’s probably going to remain there for the rest of the Championship.
Ireland outperformed France in a number of areas (lineout, ruck, skill levels), but just like their back row received all the plaudits in Rome, their half-backs proved to be the main difference against France. Most players coast along on their return from injury, using whatever time they get on the pitch to acclimatise to the pace and intensity of the game, rather than put their stamp on proceedings. Johnny Sexton instead chose to impose himself, kicking long-range drop goals, hurling himself at ball carriers, cutting the defensive line to shreds, and effortlessly putting the ball in behind the clueless Noa Nakaitaci to cause havoc, all while taking the usual cheap shots:
It was a startling lack of regard for his own wellbeing from a player who hadn’t played any rugby since January 20th. Very few 10’s would have had the conviction and mental strength to boss a Test match after missing so much of the season through injury.
Conor Murray standing out as much as he did may have had something to do with Baptiste Serin running backwards and rifling the ball over his teammates’ heads; one excellent snipe aside, the French scrum-half played with all the composure of a scalded cat, although he wasn’t helped by Camille Lopez losing interest after Rémi Lamerat’s try was disallowed. Murray was judged to be quiet in the first two rounds, partly due to the fact that he was carrying a groin problem, and also because he set the bar so high in November. It’s hard to please everyone when you produce consecutive world class performances, but Ireland’s talismanic 9 reached his peak against Guy Novès’ side:
The level of control exerted by Murray and Sexton was reminiscent of the 2015 Six Nations, when they carried the team to a Championship win. On a weekend where Wales took themselves out of the equation and England were made to look fallible, Ireland’s half-backs are back in combustible form at just the right time. If both can stay fully-fit, their team have every chance of pulling another Six Nations title out of the fire.