Focus shifts to England as Ireland eye slam
Ireland 18 France 11
THE very idea of a Grand Slam is likely to be banned from Ireland's camp in Galway this week as Joe Schmidt begins plotting for England, but Brian O'Driscoll put the idea on the agenda by suggesting his former team-mates "have a Slam in them" and it would have been rude not to put it to the coach.
"That's great of Drico," he smiled and raised his eyes to heaven. Schmidt is in game-to-game mode and Sunday week's battle with England is looming large. Sure, Wales and Scotland remain after that game, but it has all the signs of a title eliminator.
After Stuart Lancaster's side ran up a big score against Italy, it looks likely Ireland will need a sweep to retain their title.
They have now won nine in succession, one shy of the record set in 2003. That run was ended by Clive Woodward's eventual World Cup winners as they claimed a Slam at Lansdowne Road.
Saturday's victory over France can be filed under winning ugly. Ireland have become increasingly hard to beat under their brilliant coach, but this was hard to watch as well.
Philippe Saint-Andre claimed after the game that his side "are not as bad as some people think" but they were again less than the sum of their parts at the Aviva Stadium.
A large part of that was down to Schmidt's tactics which were carried out by the mercurial Johnny Sexton whose performance gave lie to the fact he hadn't played for three months.
By rushing up to meet the French ball carriers and tackling high, Ireland neutered Les Bleus' off-loading game and by cleverly playing for possession and territory, they put faith in the fact the visiting team would concede penalties and they did just that.
Sexton sent them over, with Ian Madigan doing his job when on as a temporary replacement, and by the time Saint-Andre sent on his fearsome replacements to change the game, it was just too late.
It finished with one of those dramatic finales that are becoming an unwanted trademark of this team at a venue where they haven't lost in seven Tests, but it shouldn't have come to that.
Ireland engineered a chance to finish the game off at 15-6 and 25 minutes remaining. With Pascal Pape in the sin-bin, the Irish maul marched forward and Conor Murray peeled off to feed Sexton, who had just returned after being stitched up, and although he sucked in defenders by delaying his pass, the fly-half's ball to Jared Payne was far too hard and possibly not the right option as Simon Zebo and Rob Kearney screamed for the ball outside.
That was Ireland's opening, the only time they ever looked like scoring a try and in the end they white-knuckled it over the line once again.
"I was incredibly proud of the defensive display that we fought our corner really, particularly when we were a man down in that last quarter," Schmidt said. "They have some of the biggest humans I have ever seen on a rugby pitch coming at us and it is very very difficult to arrest their momentum once it begins.
"I thought our kick-off strategy worked really well. I thought our set-piece in the first-half was really good. We didn't get a lot of luck putting pressure on their line-out. I thought we got some great pressure on them at times and the ball just bounced up to them.
"So those elements were really positive for us. It's very hard to go through a number of phases against the French team getting up off the line if the ruck is slow. I just thought the players felt a lot of frustration around the back of our ruck, trying to make sure those players were clear and out of the way, because it is something the referees have been very strict on.
"We have to take as much care of that as we possibly can and that will be something we will no doubt be working on in the lead-up to England.
"I think that one of the things that gave them initial momentum was those set-piece penalties, we were massively frustrated by those."
Schmidt and his captain Paul O'Connell were clearly frustrated by the performance of referee Wayne Barnes, who awarded a massive 25 penalties and two yellow cards over the course of a gruelling 80 minutes.
Ireland were unhappy with French tacklers blocking their route to the ruck, something that led to numerous first-half turnovers, while Mike Ross was repeatedly penalised at the scrum.
"We'd contest a number of those scrum penalties obviously," Schmidt said. "If you put a line in the sand and you're consistent and you're very clear, people start to read that and get out of the way. To have 15 first-half penalties, nine against France and six against us, that was around about what you have in a whole game.
"We're averaging seven penalties a game, so that was really disappointing for us. I felt we were certainly trying to make the effort to avoid that. So, we certainly weren't happy with that aspect of our game and we'll be working hard at that in Galway."
Whatever about Ireland's discipline, France's was woeful.
After Sexton put doubts over his health to bed with a choke tackle on Mathieu Bastareaud the first time the enormous centre came down his channel, he was able to establish a first-half lead through the boot as he punished successive errors.
Ireland were no angels and it was 12-6 at the break and, while Ian Madigan nudged his side further ahead when on as Sexton was being stitched after clashing heads with Bastareaud, the visitors began to play their way into the game with replacement Remi Lamerat prominent.
Just as they began to find momentum, Pape undid the good work by leaving the knee in on Jamie Heaslip, He was lucky to see just yellow.
Sexton passed up his golden opportunity and a silly trip by Rory Best on Thierry Dusatoir invited the French back into the game as he joined Pape in the sin bin. Led by their sizeable replacement props Vincent Debaty and Uini Antonio, France began to offload the ball more freely and find holes.
Another sub Romain Taofifenua got over the line, but they couldn't manage another assault as Sean O'Brien and Zebo shunted Yoann Huget into touch to close the game out.
"We have managed to build a bit of a home record and I know the players take incredible pride playing here at the Aviva and we have had fantastic support," Schmidt said. "I have had a number of people trying to put pressure on me to see if I can find England tickets for them. It has been sold out for a long time, it is going to be a massive occasion and we won't be looking past that.
Ireland - R Kearney; T Bowe, J Payne, R Henshaw, S Zebo; J Sexton (I Madigan 45-55), C Murray; J McGrath (C Healy (63), R Best (S Cronin 73), M Ross (M Moore 63), D Toner (I Henderson 75), P O'Connell, P O'Mahony, S O'Brien (S Cronin 66), J Heaslip (J Murphy 60).
France - S Spedding; Y Huget, M Bastareaud (R Tales 46-53), W Fofana (R Lemaret 16-23), T Thomas (R Lemaret 33); C Lopez, R Kockott (M Parra 66); E Ben Arous (V Debaty 50), G Guirado (B Kayser 50), R Slimani (U Atonio 50), P Pape (R Taofifenua 65), Y Maestri, T Dusautoir, D Chouly (L Goujon 73), B Le Roux.
Referee - Wayne Barnes (England)