Back with a bang: Dogged Ireland make pressure pay as Sexton returns
Ireland 19 France 9
Two hours before kick-off at Lansdowne Road yesterday we had one of those downpours that had a mid-winter feel to it. If it continued it would close the door on a contest with as much tempo as grunt to it. But if it abated we might be in business for the latest instalment of what has become an interesting little rivalry between Ireland and France. It abated. And what we got was somewhere between the two.
With each side having lost once each en route there was an edge of desperation to it, which is just what you want in Test rugby. At its end Ireland were still in with a chance of the title. France will have to be happy with being on the right road.
The consensus was that they had arrived late to the door of Guy Noves, that his best days were behind him in Toulouse, where he had been a fixture. The first two rounds of this competition however suggested he still had something to offer. And this added to that impression. Ireland dug in, with Johnny Sexton proving again that while fitness may be an issue for him he has a rare ability to hit the ground running when he comes back from a lay-off.
He miscued one punt to touch early in the first half. Other than that he was on the money in lots of areas before making way for Paddy Jackson to close the deal. So too were Seán O'Brien and CJ Stander in the form Ireland needed. On a day when France's maul defence was, as expected, pretty good, Ireland needed their carriers to do just that. And there was a lot of it, with Ireland not threatening their opponents much out wide. In those circumstances you fear for the likes of Garry Ringrose when he is in the eye of the storm, but again he coped really well.
Ireland needed to have faith in what they were at for France played with more structure than we've seen under any of Noves's predecessors, and for the first quarter here it looked a lot more effective than what Ireland were bringing to the table. In possession France had that killer combo of width and go-forward; without it they forced Ireland through any number of phases for marginal gains.
By the time that quarter was up, however, when they were leading 4-1 on penalties, their digits on the scoreboard were only 6-0 - both penalties coming from Camille Lopez. During the course of that period they put a lot of pressure on Jack McGrath, with the bonus of two penalties. With two players in the back-field they also discouraged Johnny Sexton from looking for territory there - it didn't seem beyond a player of his skills to get over it - or else he was happy playing the possession game to tire out France.
Certainly it forced them into making an extra 16 tackles over the first 40 minutes, but they weren't on their knees at the end of it. Nor were they at the end, by which point the tackle count saw them make a massive 52 more than Ireland. They were behind on the scoreboard though. You wonder how it would have finished had flanker Bernard Le Roux not spilled the ball after a great counter-attack, late in the day, when conditions had become foul.
From the get-go Sexton looked desperate to give his side momentum and it seemed to govern his decisions when penalties presented themselves. So the option was either to go down the line, or to scrummage, rather than shoot for goal.
There had been a fair bit of pressure before it paid off on the half-hour mark with a try from man of the match Conor Murray. It was typical of him: Henshaw carried at the 10-12 channel off a scrum - Ireland's go-to move when in the opposition 22 regardless of the opposition - and from the scrap close-in the scrum-half sniped to score. On a tricky day for a scrum-half he was excellent. Sexton's conversion gave them a 7-6 lead. Despite having a foothold in French territory for much of the remaining 10 minutes Ireland couldn't add to their tally - passing up a handy three points in favour of a quick penalty which ultimately didn't work out.
When the rain came early in the second half it literally changed the complexion on things. If you had a sniff, you took it. So when Baptiste Serin overdid his obstruction of Murray at a scrum in front of his sticks, Sexton punished him. And he did it again a few minutes later when Serin box-kicked badly and Keith Earls countered well. This time Ireland's out-half picked off a lovely drop goal. With the conditions now fairly horrible, a lead of 13-6 was more value than it would have been on a lovely evening. And 16-6 was even better. That unfolded on 55 minutes when Kevin Gourdon broke early off a scrum.
From there the policy was clear: play territory and apply pressure. The only problem was France getting in the way. On the hour mark they interrupted a load of grunt work by Ireland, which had taken them to 15 metres of the French line, for a thrilling counter-attack that seemed destined to deliver at least five points only for Le Roux to drop it 25 metres from the target with Ireland sorely stretched.
That wasn't the only thing Ireland got away with. Replacement Cian Healy upended an opponent at a ruck for a penalty advantage to France, which they would have been better off kicking away for it might have got Healy binned. Instead referee Nigel Owens let the phases stack up whereupon, ironically, it ran out with a penalty to Ireland for a neck roll by Uini Atonio on O'Brien. France were sick.
They did pull back three points with seven minutes left but replacement Paddy Jackson balanced that with three of own to make the game safe.
Ireland: R Kearney (A Trimble 52); K Earls, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, S Zebo; J Sexton (P Jackson 69), C Murray (K Marmion 76); J McGrath (C Healy 60), R Best (capt) (N Scannell 68), T Furlong (J Ryan 74), D Ryan (I Henderson 60), D Toner, CJ Stander, J Heaslip, S O'Brien (P O'Mahony 68).
France: S Spedding (D Camara 74); Y Huget, R Lamerat (H Chavancy 60), G Fickou, N Nakaitaci; C Lopez, B Serin (M Machenaud 62); C Baille (E Ben Aruus 51), G Guirado (capt) (C Tolofua 62), R Slimani (U Antonio 51), S Vahaamahina, Y Maestri, B le Roux (C Ollivon 60), L Picamoles, K Gourdon.
Referee: N Owens (Wales)
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