Monday 25 September 2017

Fate deals a generous hand to Schmidt's men

Ireland 18 France 11

Jonathan Sexton, Ireland, kicks a first half penalty. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v France. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Jonathan Sexton, Ireland, kicks a first half penalty. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v France. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Jonathan Sexton, Ireland, is attended to by team doctor Dr. Eanna Falvey and referee Wayne Barnes following a blood injury during the second half. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v France. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Rory Kockott, France, is tackled by Rory Best
Camille Lopez, France, passes to teammate Scott Spedding, despite the tackle of Rob Kearney, Ireland. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v France. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Wesley Fofana, France, is tackled by Robbie Henshaw, Ireland. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v France. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Simon Zebo, Ireland, breaks through the tackle of Pascal Pape, left, and Guilhen Guirado, France. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v France. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Jonathan Sexton, Ireland, picks up a blood injury following a clash of heads during the second half. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v France. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
In the 11th minute a superbly judged high kick to the corner almost put Tommy Bowe in
Peter O'Mahony, Ireland, is tackled by Rory Kockott, France. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v France. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin.
Remi Tales, France, is tackled by Jared Payne, Ireland. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v France. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
14 February 2015; Ireland's Rob Kearney celebrates at the blow of final wistle. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v France. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Rory Kockott, France, is tackled by Devin Toner, Ireland. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v France. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

History has conditioned us to fear spring-like weather when it comes to playing France, so if you were out and about in Dublin yesterday afternoon you might have been in two minds about the 20th meeting of these sides, in all competitions, since 2000.

On the negative side was the awful statistic of just five Irish wins in the fixture in that period; on the positive was the feel-good factor that attends this Ireland team - given a decent run of cards they can sit at the table with anyone.

Well, they got a reasonably fair shake from referee Wayne Barnes at the Aviva yesterday, and the bounce of the ball was kind enough too, both of them critical factors in tight games. Moreover France's sniper, Camille Lopez, had a strike rate of just 50 per cent while Ireland's marksmen - man of the match Johnny Sexton and his temporary replacement Ian Madigan - were unerring.

Add it all up and Joe Schmidt's team came out the right side despite yet another sweaty sprint down the home straight. It is the matchmaker's dream now, with Ireland and England both unbeaten, and two weeks to count down to what will be an epic event.

We are becoming accustomed to starting at the finish when telling the story of this team. Emptied by the experience of losing at the death to New Zealand 15 months ago, since then they have had desperately close calls with France, Australia and now France again, and emerged successfully from them all.

Given that we have Philippe Saint-André's side in our World Cup pool you'd probably need a sports psychologist to put a value on those two wins, and Mystic Meg to make a call on whether or not the coach will still be there when the teams meet then.

Not to take away from what is developing into an intriguing Championship but you'd love to fast forward to that point, for it will make or break Ireland's World Cup. And what kind of game will Ireland be playing by then?

For now it is conservative enough, with no clean line breaks to put France into try-conceding territory, and just two offloads to load some extra pressure on their defence. Sometimes the stats can be misleading though: for example they attributed 12 offloads to France, and if that was the case then the bulk of them came in the endgame when they had Ireland under serious pressure.

When Les Kiss reviews the defensive effort, he will be very happy with the bulk of it, and maddened by the couple of individual errors made in the build up to the game's only try - a fine team effort finished by replacement Romain Taofifenua. Saint-André got full value from his bench, starting when he rolled on a new front-row en bloc in the third quarter, with an immediate impact on the quality of France's carry.

They needed the surge for Ireland had won the first half clearly, with Sexton leading the charge. Rarely can a Test match have started with so much focus on the welfare of one player. It didn't help that the IRFU decided to issue a statement on Friday to rebut the opinion of former France international Laurent Benezech that Ireland's outhalf was a liability. Those points - if you need to visit them at all - are best made after the event.

In fairness to Sexton, he carried the load as if it were an overnight bag. It's hard to quantify the increase in speed and intensity from training ground to Test match, but whatever figure you arrive at will need revision when you factor in a lay-off of more then three months.

Yet with most of the finer points of his game you'd see more rust on a sports car rolling off the production line. His one stall came late in the game, throwing an unsympathetic pass to Jared Payne under the France sticks with the home defence stretched to breaking point.

The sideshow in this encounter was Sexton's meeting with Mathieu Bastareaud. Typical of Ireland's team leader, he went looking for the forbidding lump that is the Toulon centre, rather than waiting for him to appear down his channel. That it happened early in the game, and ended with a turnover to Ireland for a successful choke - aided by Seán O'Brien and Tommy Bowe - did no harm.

They would meet a few times thereafter, most notably in the third quarter with a big head collision that saw both players go off with blood injuries. And both came back.

The other important traffic featured Rory Best and Pascal Pape, both of whom were binned. Best was done fair and square for a professional foul; Pape however should have seen red for kneeing Jamie Heaslip in the back at a maul. Where on earth is the rationale for deciding that a blatant foul and injurious play warrants only a yellow card?

Heaslip and Best were big losses, but Lopez's penalty miss when Best was binned could have brought the score back to 15-9. Instead it became 18-6 on 68 minutes when Sexton goaled a great kick from over 50 metres. That gave Ireland some comfort when Taofifenua came calling, but Ireland shored up their defence after that. Typically, Paul O'Connell was excellent in that period. The captain was frustrated afterwards that Ireland had let France off the hook a few times, especially at the maul which didn't do anything like the damage that had been planned.

It will need to be better against England, but at least they are preparing from a position of strength. This was a big win for a team with big ambitions. And each step of the way more will be expected of them.

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