Missed opportunity for Ireland as Noves hails players' role
France 10 Ireland 9
Victories in Paris are a precious commodity for Irish teams and that's what made Saturday's defeat all the harder to take.
Joe Schmidt's side had all the opportunities they needed to ensure that, by the time the French cavalry came rumbling on after half-time, they would have too much to do but for the second week running they passed up their chances.
Against a France team low on experience and apparently without much of a plan in the first 40 minutes, Ireland needed to make hay, but instead their own sloppiness got in the way in admittedly difficult conditions.
For all the criticism of Ireland's game-plan, they worked their way into the right parts of the pitch just fine. The problems began when they got there.
Their first visit saw a lineout go astray, their second might have resulted in a try had referee Jaco Peyper not blown so quickly for a knock-on when the ball came off Robbie Henshaw's chest before Dave Kearney picked it up and touched down. Yet, had Johnny Sexton found Kearney's hands rather than the centre's body they wouldn't have needed the TMO.
Another visit came a cropper when Sean O'Brien was punished for obstruction, while CJ Stander knocked on during a further period of Irish pressure in French territory that went without reward.
So, for all their dominance of territory, Ireland went in just 9-3 ahead thanks to kicks from Johnny Sexton and when France coach Guy Noves rolled on his first-choice props and introduced the more experienced Maxime Macheneaud for Sebastien Bezy at scrum-half, the tide turned.
Ireland might have hoped for more help from referee Jaco Peyper during that first half as France got away with various attempts at inflicting grievous bodily harm on their visitors during a filthy 40 minutes, but the South African somehow kept his hands in his pockets.
After the break, the home team switched their focus to man-handling their opponents in a more conventional manner and, with Eddy Ben Arous and Rabah Slimani on, they wreaked havoc on Ireland's scrum.
Again, Joe Schmidt was less than impressed with the refereeing of the set-piece, but they're the terms of engagement you sometimes get away from home and, eventually, the dam burst as, with a penalty try seemingly imminent, the ball squirted out to Machenaud who drew Conor Murray and found Maxime Medard who slipped in behind Robbie Henshaw and powered past Tommy O'Donnell to score.
Ireland's six-day turnaround didn't help as they tired badly and coped with an increasingly frightening injury list, but France also improved immeasurably after half-time.
"We didn't change the content, but we did see that we were making too many mistakes, a knock-on here, a penalty in the scrum there, another penalty after a lineout," Noves said.
"We couldn't play our game and were trying to endure through Ireland's phases. I told the boys, half jokingly, that in a way they had put themselves in a perfect situation by abandoning possession for 30 minutes, since we wanted to work on our defence.
"They probably put too much pressure on themselves, whereas it was just a rugby game. You can win or lose, no one is going to die. If you want to compete, you need to let loose.
"This team will win games, lose others, but you can't give possession back to your opponent. This is pretty much what I said at half-time, although I felt a great eagerness to compete, to dominate.
"The victory was decided by the boys' and the captain's decisions, especially when they chose to go to touch instead of kicking for three when we were down 9-3. They felt that they were getting the momentum back, and we ended up scoring a great try. This win belongs to the players more than the staff."
With Ireland, there is a feeling that the defeat belongs to the players too, but Schmidt will invariably cop the flak as top man. This was never going to be an easy Six Nations, but this ugly defeat has exposed some worrying signs for the head coach to address as Twickenham looms.
France - M Medard; T Thomas (H Bonneval 45), M Mermoz, J Danty (JM Doussain 77), V Vakatawa; J Plisson, S Bezy (M Machenaud 57); J Poirot (R Slimani 45), G Guirado (capt) (C Chat 48), U Atonio (E Ben Arous 45; J Poirot 75)), A Flanquart, Y Maestri (P Jedrasiak 59), W Lauret, Y Camara (L Goujon 68), D Chouly.
Ireland - R Kearney; A Trimble, J Payne, R Henshaw, D Kearney (F McFadden 29); J Sexton (I Madigan 70), C Murray; J McGrath (J Cronin 74), R Best (capt) (R Strauss 71), N White (T Furlong 62), M McCarthy (D Ryan 63), D Toner, CJ Stander, S O'Brien (T O'Donnell 19), J Heaslip.
Ref - J Peyper (SA)