Given that Ireland were heading into this fixture without Johnny Sexton, most Irish supporters would have bitten your hand off if you had offered them a 6-point loss, and definitely all of them would have been happy with that outcome after conceding a damaging early score, but this feels like one that got away. It’s an unusual thing to be able to say when you consider how many facets of this game Ireland came off second-best in by a distance, but they clawed back to within a point of France in the second half, and for much of the game after that, the hosts appeared nervous and fatigued.
That might have been down to France’s six-day turnaround after their clash with Italy in Round 1, but Ireland will still feel frustrated at the chances that they squandered in the second half through fundamental errors. Their effort cannot be faulted, and a better start and the presence of Sexton may have meant a different result, but the fact that Ireland have had their weak points exposed to such a great degree the year before a World Cup could prove to be a blessing in disguise.
Antoine Dupont’s opening try rocked Ireland back on their heels, but in truth, France were bossing the majority of the collisions anyway, putting in bruising carries and driving Ireland backwards at an alarming rate when they had the ball:
Even Ireland’s premier ball-carriers like Tadhg Furlong and Caelan Doris found themselves running into brick walls from the off, but France’s post-tackle work was where they were at their most destructive. They were ferocious and organised in how they attacked Ireland’s breakdown, refusing to allow them to have clean possession at any breakdown:
The knock-on effect that this had for Ireland was that their scrum-halves had to dig the ball out of a messy ruck, and were hurried into bad skill execution by the pressure that Ireland were under from the French pack:
It’s unfair to highlight one position in a team performance where a number of players had mixed outings (especially when Gibson-Park scored a superb solo try that swung the game in Ireland’s favour), but Ireland may need to look at other options at 9 on the back of this loss, as crisp service from the base of the ruck is crucial to playing fast-paced attacking rugby.
Gibson-Park’s tempo is vital to the way that Ireland play, but the accuracy of his passing and box-kicking can let him down, and Murray isn’t the type of scrum-half that can spark a fast-paced attack at this point in his career. The quality of ruck ball will affect any half-back’s performance, and the breakdown was a war zone against France, but in Kieran Marmion and Nathan Doak, Ireland have in-form alternatives that could provide healthy competition at 9, and the Irish management have already invested time in Craig Casey.
France began the second half with a Melvyn Jaminet penalty, but the momentum of the game swung against them immediately after. A well-executed maul yielded a try from Josh van der Flier, and Ireland got a noticeable lift from it. They settled into their attacking patterns, using their pull-back plays to good effect with the French line speed reducing somewhat, as well as exploiting space around the fringes:
Joey Carbery took advantage of the space in behind the edge of the French blitz defence, too, with this well-weighted kick, which France did well to deal with, but were showing signs of creaking under pressure nonetheless:
Gibson-Park’s try made it a one-score game, and Ireland started getting the benefit of Angus Gardner’s whistle more frequently than they had done in the first half, but errors and an odd decision to go for goal instead of down the line in the 72nd minute prevented them stopped them from going into the lead.
There was a lot of deliberation between Carbery, Murray and James Ryan on this decision, and the lost lineout a few minutes before surely played a part in their thinking, but with less than 10 minutes left, it seems strange that they went for goal, when another try would be required to go into the lead anyway:
What was even more confusing in the final stages of the game was Ireland’s decision to kick from the backfield when they needed to make their way down the pitch for a score to either level or win the game:
The aerial contests throughout the game had been even enough, whereas Ireland’s attack had troubled the French defence from the beginning the second half, so holding on to the ball in order to stress France would have been the better option. Playing 70-odd minutes in a bruising encounter is guaranteed to have caused their decision-making to deteriorate (and it’s easy to say these things in hindsight), but going through the phases would have given them a better chance of winning the game than 50/50 high balls.
Overall, this was a disappointing performance from Ireland. Had Mack Hansen not scored a wonder-try in the opening minutes and Melvyn Jaminet been awarded a try in the final stages, the scoreline wouldn’t have even been close. That being said, every team rides their luck, and you can only react to what happens in front of you, but numerous aspects of this display from Ireland will have to be reviewed and improved upon.
Their multi-layered attacking structure didn’t hold up against immense physicality and a rush defence, and despite the complexity they have added in this area since the last World Cup, they are still reliant on dominance up front and a fully-functioning lineout to win big games. That could be said of any team, but if Ireland are to be successful going forward, then they will need to devise strategies for forcing teams to check their line speed and keeping them second-guessing at lineout time.
Short-range kicks from 10 could have backfired with the capacity for counter-attacking that the French backline have, and overcomplicating the lineout could have made matters worse in that department, but if Ireland don’t take any learnings from this game at all, then it will have been a waste of time and effort. In spite of their shortcomings, Ireland deserve to be lauded for how they hit back at France in the third quarter and refused to give up thereafter.
This has been the biggest difference between the Schmidt and Farrell eras, and Ireland’s ability to rebound in adverse circumstances is a trait they will need to keep going forward. The fact that they were competitive with arguably the best team in the world without Johnny Sexton is the other main positive to be taken from this result, and it’s better that they learn hard lessons now instead of in the middle of RWC 2023, but there remains work to be done for Andy Farrell and his coaching ticket.