Sunday 18 February 2018

Bernard Jackman: Dance is a contact sport - rugby is a collision sport and Ireland won the battle yesterday

Conor Murray impressed for Ireland against France. Photo: Sportsfile
Conor Murray impressed for Ireland against France. Photo: Sportsfile

Bernard Jackman

Before yesterday's game there was a real mix of anticipation and excitement in and around the Aviva Stadium.

There was plenty of debate too as people wondered what Ireland team were going to turn up. This was usually a conversation reserved for French teams but the discrepancies between the Ireland who played in November and the one who turned up against Scotland were too big to ignore. And of course we also wondered if the Italy annihilation told us anything really.

Once the game got under way there was no time to think about whether Ireland were going to perform or not. France really left them no choice. Guy Noves' men started with intent and intensity. They went six points ahead and Ireland had to get either into the game or it was going to be game over. When the French outside centre Rémi Lamerat picked up CJ Stander and smashed him back it sent a message to Ireland and, more importantly, it indicated to his French team-mates that if Ireland want to score they will have to go through us.

France looked dangerous in attack in the first few phases but once they were stopped they lost their shape quickly and were no real threat to the Ireland defence.

After a shaky start Ireland responded well and what played out for the rest of the half was a real war of attrition. They used to say that rugby was a contact sport but dance is a contact sport and professional rugby is a collision sport. Four of Scotland's players left the field for head injury assessments in France's previous match; the gain line was a war zone.

Yesterday Ireland may have been slow to realise they were in a battle but once they loaded their weapons they started to fire with ferocity, aided and abetted by their much-missed general Jonathan Sexton.

France are a team that he doesn't fear and why would he? He's been inside enemy lines with Racing, he knows what makes them tick and he can derail their plan of attack. A stint in France gives real insight into the game they play and the culture that is around the national team.

I'm a big fan of Paddy Jackson - who is now more than ever obviously Sexton's deputy - but it's fair to say that the Leinster man offers so much more.

He was physical in defence and attack, showing little regard for his body, one that is not where he'd like it to be in terms of match fitness.

He inspires his team-mates and as Rob Kearney once said, he makes them play better. It was nice to see Jackson coming on as a replacement and after this campaign the pecking order of the Irish tens will be well and truly established.

This consistency will be important as the out-half's role as more than just a kicker is vital to Joe Schmidt's game plan. There was a big focus on the high ball yet it didn't yield as much gain as we probably expected. Despite getting up in the air and disrupting the ball it seemed to always bounce favourably for the men in blue during the first half.

However, as the rain began to fall, Sexton sent huge garryowens down onto the South African-born full-back Scott Spedding. His errors gave Ireland field position and the scrum started to get on top which led to the Sexton drop goal and penalty. I think Conor Murray had a great match again and is surely in pole position in what will be a hotly-contested starting Lions spot. He passed and kicked brilliantly and put huge pressure on Baptiste Serin, Camille Lopez and Spedding whenever they tried to exit. Often forcing them to pull out of the kick and play another phase when they weren't organised.

France were too undisciplined to beat a team as resilient and patient as Ireland, who won the battle of the breakdown. They used the old reliable tactics to get in behind them. The inside ball to Rob Kearney from a ruck in the middle and the Sexton wrap-around, along with the decoy lines of Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw and Kearney. The variety we showed varying the strike runner posed Gael Fickou all sorts of problems.

Ireland have a week off and it's much needed. It will be more about recovery than hard, physical work. The challenge now is to design a game plan to beat Wales in Cardiff and set up a Championship decider at home against England. What a difference a few weeks makes.

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