Although Johnny Sexton is fully-deserving of the praise that has come his way since his heroics at the end of Saturday’s hard-fought Test between France and Ireland, the willingness of his teammates to fight tooth and nail to get him into that position was just as laudable. Kicking a drop goal at the death to win in Paris is the stuff dreams are made of, but holding on to a wet ball for 41 phases at the end of a brutally physical encounter is an extraordinary feat.
The groundwork from Ireland’s pack at the breakdown was patient and efficient (Peter O’Mahony, John Ryan and Devin Toner in particular were prominent in this area), with their clearing out ensuring that Ireland didn’t lose the ball when a turnover seemed inevitable:
It wasn’t all grunt work in that last passage, though. Ireland had the audacity to try a cross-field kick, and the execution from Sexton and aerial ability of Keith Earls were both first-rate, with the Munster winger making valuable metres after coming back to ground once he secured the ball:
It all contributed towards a moment of magic that is right up there with Ronan O’Gara’s Grand Slam-winning effort against in Cardiff 9 years ago. With one kick, Sexton turned a Test match on its head, pulled Ireland’s Grand Slam hopes out of the fire and displayed the mental fortitude that we first witnessed when he kicked a long-range drop goal in a Heineken Cup final when he burst on to the scene for Leinster back in 2009, in what was his first start in a knockout game at that level. He has had doubters in the years since, but this kick should put to bed any question marks over his courage or temperament:
An Encouraging Start
As satisfying as that match-winning drop goal was, Ireland shouldn’t have been in that position to begin with. They had as good a start as they could have hoped for, with a slick back line move stemming from ball off-the-top at the tail of the lineout exposing the edge of the French defence inside the first two minutes of the game. Jacob Stockdale and Keith Earls made several metres down the right wing off the back of this line break, and France were all at sea:
It wasn’t just off first-phase where Ireland troubled France in the early stages; they put together some high-tempo multi-phase attacks (with the carrying of Cian Healy, Iain Henderson, CJ Stander and James Ryan especially to the fore), which forced France to make a lot of tackles that were expected to tell later on in the game:
On top of the pressure they were exerting on them in attack with ball in hand, Ireland also disrupted a few of France’s lineout throws through excellent aerial competition from O’Mahony and Ryan and they repeatedly kicked down Virimi Vakatawa’s wing.
This tactic didn’t always reap rewards, but it kept France pinned in their own half for much of the opening quarter. Aside from their line speed being a little slow when France attacked off scrums, Ireland had the measure of the home side in defence (tackling hard and low) and were comfortable in every phase of play in the opening exchanges. By the end of the first half, this game looked like it was following the same pattern as the November Test against South Africa: Ireland would steadily build a lead over the course of the first 40 minutes and then put their opposition to the sword when their legs were gone in the final quarter.
Tearing Up The Script
Unfortunately, the game didn’t pan out that way and there were a couple of reasons why. In sharp contrast to the below par defence that we saw from them back in November, France were resilient and belligerent off the ball, and never fatigued the way many had predicted. The tackle count from Guilhem Guirado (29 completed) defied belief, and the rest of his squad weren’t far behind him. This, combined with the deteriorating conditions, caused frustrating handling errors on Ireland’s part when they were trying to stretch France in the second half:
Even when they did retain possession for long periods, France slowed their ruck ball down to a crawl, and Nigel Owen’s lenient refereeing of the breakdown allowed them to pile numbers in and roll on to Ireland’s side, preventing them from building up a head of steam:
Erroneous refereeing decisions and Irish mistakes were salient features of this game, but France deserve credit for doing their homework on Ireland’s attack and the defensive shift they put in to deny Ireland momentum. Joe Schmidt’s side often use set-pieces as a means of generating go-forward ball in order to set up a power play on one of the subsequent phases.
Jacques Brunel and his coaching ticket recognised this, and their defensive strategy centred around heaping pressure on Conor Murray when he received the ball from his forwards in these situations. As mentioned earlier, Ireland did get quick, clean ball from the lineout at times, but there were numerous occasions where France rushed up on Murray and hammered into him before he could release his backs:
The amount of players that Ireland had to commit to securing the ball in the example above meant that their attacking shape was completely disrupted and they had to start again off dirty, slow ball. France also put a premium on barging Ireland backwards at maul-time, and apart from one meaningful shove in the second half, Murray had to scramble to get the ball away whenever Ireland attempted a catch-and-drive:
Whatever issues Ireland may have had with the officiating of the game, they have no one to blame but themselves for their profligacy in the red zone. More than once they camped inside the French 22, and were on course to surge over the try line, only to turn the ball over at vital moments. The last of these energy-sapping turnovers came in the 51st minute when the otherwise impressive Tadhg Furlong had the ball ripped from his grasp by Jefferson Poirot:
When this happened, you got the sense that it was a major turning point. Things went downhill for Ireland afterwards, with the home crowd becoming interested after watching their team being outplayed for 50 minutes.
As damaging as Teddy Thomas’ try was for Ireland, there was a series of events in the lead-up to it that put the ball in France’s court towards the end, and they all could have been avoided if Ireland had taken better care of the ball with the try line at their mercy. Sexton’s missed place-kick, France making a huge gain from a scrum and Nigel Owens’ decision not to award a penalty when Rob Kearney was clearly taken out in the air all happened within the space of 8 minutes, and after being in the driving seat for so long, the visitors were the ones who appeared most likely to crumble.
Schmidt cut a frustrated figure in his post-match interview, and you can understand why. The Irish players and supporters may have been in a state of ecstasy in the immediate aftermath of what transpired at the Stade de France on Saturday evening, but from an analytical perspective, Ireland have a mountain to climb. What they produced against France will not be anywhere near enough to win this Championship, based on the performances of Wales and England at the weekend.
Ireland have been criticised in recent times for not being able to win games when they go behind, and even though there has been evidence to support that view (the 2015 Six Nations loss to Wales, the RWC 2015 quarter-final defeat to Argentina, last year’s shock loss to Scotland), it must be noted that twice since the last World Cup, they have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat against Tier 1 teams, with the previous case being the narrow win over Australia in 2016. The mark of a champion side is the ability to win when they are not at playing at their best, and while Ireland have made big strides in terms of developing squad depth and expanding their game plan since the start of 2016, the development of their mental strength is perhaps a more significant improvement.
That’s not to say that Ireland will win the next World Cup (or even this year’s Six Nations) on the back of two dramatic victories, but the greatest teams can grind out a result on their off-days. The Rugby Championship Test between South Africa and New Zealand in Cape Town last October was a classic example; the All Blacks were battered and bruised for the majority of that enthralling clash, yet still had enough in the tank to scrape the win. It would be nonsense to suggest that Ireland are now a better team than New Zealand, but their refusal to lie down and die is a trait that will be crucial if they are serious about challenging for Grand Slams or World Cups.