This game pitted a team who won well last weekend against a team that lost in unfortunate circumstances. Ireland needed a big performance after their defeat at the Principality, whilst France knew that a win would help them in their quest to be Six Nations champions for the first time since 2010.
Both teams spent the early stages of the game kicking to each other, looking to test each other’s back lines, seeing how quickly they had settled into the game. However, Ireland were also happy to run forwards with the ball, and looked willing to collide with the French defenders as much as possible. By doing so, they wanted to test them, seeing where the gaps were, and where they could break through them. They were unlucky not to score, when Leinster winger James Lowe got the ball over the line, but had already been nudged into touch by some excellent French defending. However, this was an early warning for France that Ireland would look to exploit any space they could find, and the fact that this came when France were down to 14 men, with lock Bernard Le Roux in the sin bin for tripping winger Keith Earls, showed how Ireland wanted to take advantage of the extra space.
The other thing Ireland were looking to do in the first half was to play a lot of Garryowens, or “up-and-unders”, which they then chased forwards, particularly full-back Hugo Keenan. This helped them put pressure on France’s back line, especially Brice Dulin, with Keenan giving his opposite number a tough afternoon all game. The fact that this was used a lot shows how this was clearly something the Irish team had spoken about before the game, as a way of getting players forward and creating overloads in the middle. This gave Ireland more options to move the ball to, increasing the chances of them breaking through France’s tough defensive line.
In defence, Ireland were a bit sloppy at times, leaving gaps open for France to get through. This was something that happened throughout the game, and was possibly due to Ireland missing their central leadership group of scrum-half Conor Murray and captain and fly-half Johnny Sexton. This meant that they looked less sure of themselves, and gave up space too easily when France attacked.
This general lack of confidence continued in the second half, as Ireland looked off the pace in all areas; we have mentioned the gaps in defence, but they also hesitated when making passes and going forward, which allowed France to tackle them or steal the ball more easily. As mentioned, they just looked short on confidence, and were almost second-guessing themselves at times. This again came down to them missing their leaders in the middle, and Jamison Gibson-Park and Billy Burns are a different combination at nine and 10, but both made errors. That meant Ireland couldn’t get forward with momentum, which was a reason they ended up losing the game.
This match gave us an opportunity to see an Ireland side without Murray and Sexton. There will come a time when Murray, currently 31, and Sexton, turning 36 this year, hang up their boots, but this game exposed their lack of creativity and direction when that does happen. This is therefore something they will need to look at going forward. They did get one try back late on, when the ball bounced kindly following a lineout, and substitute hooker Ronan Kelleher took hold of it and scored a fairly simple try (his first for his country), but that was their first clear chance of the game, and it took just under an hour to come. This also showed how they were off the pace.
Ultimately, there are still questions for this Ireland side, and things they need to improve on. Last year, they and Wales both struggled, but Wales this year have come good, playing much better rugby, and looking more sure of themselves. If Ireland aren’t careful, they will have the spotlight on them and head coach Andy Farrell over the next year in the same way Wales did.
France made a few mistakes in the early stages of the game, knocking balls forward and missing a relatively easy kick through fly-half Mathieu Jalibert, and this let Ireland off at times, given we have talked about their lack of confidence. However, their defending was very good, as we have now become used to, and the way that they stopped James Lowe scoring in the corner highlighted that. Their first try came following a series of long passes, which France used to expose the gaps in Ireland’s defence, particularly on the wing, as Ireland were defending with a narrow structure, all drifting inside. An attempt was made to tackle captain Charles Ollivon when Ireland realised what was happening, but they couldn’t stop the flanker scoring. With Ireland’s defence showing a few signs of weakness, France constantly looked to punch holes in it, with Number 8 Gregory Alldritt and lock Paul Willemse working particularly hard to create gaps and move their team forward at every opportunity.
In the second half, and, to be honest, most of the match, France were sharper than their opponents, especially when attacking. They were making runs through the Irish players, before the home side worked out what was happening most of the time, and this comes back to how Ireland looked off the pace in the game. However, they didn’t convert their chances into points, which left them open to be punished by Ireland’s quicker players. As it turned out, this wasn’t the case, but they still need to make sure they gain points when they have opportunities to score; the reason they lost out to England in last year’s tournament was because they didn’t score enough and win enough bonus points.
However, one thing we have seen from France is that they are not afraid to try things, and Jalibert in particular played a lot of long passes out to the wings to give his teammates as many opportunities to score as possible. One such pass led to France’s second try from winger Damian Penaud, who is a player we know has quality, but he missed the second half of last year, due to injury, meaning he lost his place in the team for a little while. However, he took his chance here, and this try will give him a lot of confidence going forward.
France will be happy to have won the game, but will know that they need to be a little more clinical in the future, as they left a few points out on the field. However, their defence continues to be the best part of their game, and they did well to keep Ireland out.
MAN OF THE MATCH:
There were several good performances in this game. James Lowe was easily Ireland’s most threatening player, although prop Andrew Porter had another very good game, particularly in the scrums, and flanker Rhys Ruddock also played well. For France, fly-half Mathieu Jalibert was at the centre of most of France’s attacking moves, Antoine Dupont was excellent again, prop Mohamed Haouas loved crashing into opposing players, and back row Gregory Alldritt was his usual troublesome self. However, whenever Gael Fickou got the ball, France looked dangerous, and the centre was exceptional all game. Every time France found a gap in the Irish defence, the Stade Francais player was usually at the heart of it.
The Six Nations is on a break next weekend. When the tournament resumes in two weeks time, Ireland travel to Rome to face an Italian side showing some signs of improvement in this year’s tournament, with that crucial game for Ireland taking place on Saturday lunchtime. France, meanwhile, are back at home, welcoming in-form Scotland to the Stade de France; those two meet later on in the same day.