Saturday 18 November 2017

Failure to take scores proving the fatal flaw

Strength of maul a joy to behold but we must learn to convert dominance into points, writes Neil Francis

A wife came home to her husband after being out in his new car. She says to him: "I've got some good news and some bad news." The husband replies: "I'll take the good news first." She says: "Your airbags work really well..."

There was good news and bad news from yesterday's match in the Aviva Stadium.

A vastly improved performance, with certain sectors of the team performing well above their recent form. The bad news: Ireland only managed a draw after being the better team on the day and once again showed a stunning proclivity for not scoring for large periods of every Test they play in this Six Nations. Paddy Jackson's penalty in the 31st minute was the last time Ireland managed to score against France. That's 50 minutes against France, 37 against Wales, 40 against England and 37 against Scotland.

This is a fatal flaw and all week prior to the game Ireland were banging a drum about keeping the scoreboard ticking over. There is a competition of ideas about how you do this and once again Ireland were in a position to score another six-nine points and yet never had the composure to get on the board again.

Ireland boxed clever and they had a smarter use of the possession that came their way and to their credit learned from the English game that in wet conditions you make targets of yourself in your own half. Ireland kicked well and their halves controlled the game far better than their French opponents.

Conor Murray was given man of the match on a much-improved box-kicking performance. You could see a huge amount of thought had gone in to the execution of his kicks – much of this out of necessity because there was a realisation that in the last three Test games most of his box kicks went unchased or were kicked too far which was in effect a turnover. Yesterday, it seemed that Ireland had got their chasers and they harried, harangued and hassled the ball catcher – in the air and on the ground.

Most box kicks had two or three bloodthirsty Comanches chasing them. This put France under a lot of pressure territorially and kept them pinned back in their own half as they struggled to gather or retain a lot of the aerial ball.

What about the Reverend Jesse Jackson? Well the kid showed some psychological resilience and his territory game was utterly compelling and he played with a certainty which was pleasing. He did not embrace risk and played a fairly low percentage game. His hands were good and he executed everything that came his way with competence and confidence.

In the ditches, Ireland's pack scrapped the French eight right down to the marrow of their bones. If there was a degree of brilliance in Ireland's performance up front it came from an unexpected source. Their maul has been good for most of the season yet I have not seen an Irish pack dominate their French opponents to such an extent before. Nihil sine labore – nothing without labour. Ireland worked their buns off in this area and their try came about as a result.

The maul that came before the try got them staggering volition and Ireland's eight took the French pack 30 metres. They showed great control in the sense that when one or two Irish players went to ground they got up again immediately, rejoined the maul and expended energy and concentration in keeping it going forward – strength-sapping stuff.

Ireland got near the French '22' and Brian O'Driscoll, as he did for most of the match, cut his cloth. The French line speed was devastatingly quick and the chip in behind worked wonderfully well – particularly in the first half. Huget got to the ball first but could only toe-poke it in to touch six metres from the line.

France knew what was coming but prepared woefully. Ryan took it at the top of his jump in the middle and Ireland came down to set up their maul. The French decided to put only four men in to defend it and left two defenders on either side which showed a little lack of respect or reason considering what had happened a minute earlier. Jamie Heaslip got on to the ball at the back of the maul and did brilliantly in the sense that bodies fell in front of him and he showed great strength and awareness to keep himself upright and to continue his surge over the line.

Ireland performed brilliantly at tight. Their lineout was varied and they got their timing patterns right all day long. The scrum was a little different and it depended on what mood Mr Walsh the referee was in. Ireland got pinged in the first half and France got pinged in the second half.

Jackson missed a few penalties but so did his hapless opposite number Michalak and, with the score at 13-3 at half-time, there were two things that came to mind – 1. Would Ireland score in the second half? and 2. How long would Saint-Andre leave Michalak on the park?

You sensed that if Ireland had even gotten one penalty that would have been the game but, amazingly, with all their dominance they never managed to unpick France.

Michalak continued trying to implement Saint Andre's game plan – he ran when he should have kicked and he kicked when he should have ran. Mercifully, Saint-Andre kept Trinh-Duc on the bench and switched his goal kicker, but even the normally reliable Parra missed and both teams seemed to be out on their feet with the concussive power of their tackling.

It was – depending on your point of view – either commendable or extremely foolhardy that Ireland decided to chase the game in the last second. When they turned the ball over France, with nine seconds of injury time and a little bit more wit, could have snatched it if they had gone through the phases.

You can put this draw down as another match that Ireland should have won. It says much about the desperation of both sides that they are both happy with the draw. Ireland came into this match with hope but once again it is merely disappointment deferred.

Irish Independent

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