Sunday 22 April 2018

Brent Pope: Ireland incapable of turning the screw when in the ascendancy

Read Brent Pope's exclusive column every Monday in The Herald

Three penalties from Johnny Sexton is all Ireland could muster
Three penalties from Johnny Sexton is all Ireland could muster

Brent Pope

NO scrum no match, It's the oldest cliché in rugby. And unfortunately for Ireland, a weak set scrum coupled with a six-day turnaround allowed a poor enough French side to grind out a dour but physically imposing one-point victory.

It should never have come to that. Ireland completely dominated the French everywhere but on the scoreboard and the 9-3 halftime lead more than flattered the French.

Ireland constructed plenty of moves and showed plenty of heart, but huff and puff as they might, it didn't result in anything tangible apart from merely gaining territory, and after a while France realised that if they could just defend long enough they could probably win.

It was another case of Ireland being unable to turn the screw when they were in the ascendency. Rugby is a simple enough game, despite what many think, and all the great teams have an ability to move into the opposition 22 and then deliver the knockout blow.

For some reason, most of Ireland's promise seems to occur in the areas that do not put real pressure on the opposition. If you can get close to the opposition line and retain possession and then focus on building pressure phases without mistakes, nine times out of ten the opposition will eventually crack.

Ireland did have a couple of chances but as the game moved into the second half, just as against Wales, they struggled. You have to give French coach Guy Noves some credit in knowing exactly when and how to turn the screw.

The introduction of his two scrummaging props and the game's most influential player, muscular scrumhalf Maxime Machenaud, in the second half was the telling blow, although you have to wonder why they all didn't start.

South African referee Jaco Peyper was having a nightmare, missing numerous forward passes and knock ons for both sides, and how Yohann Maestri the big French second row stayed on the field beggars belief.

Not only did he take Johnny Sexton out well after the ball, it was also deliberate and cynical, throwing his shoulder into the Irish out-half with intent to injure. It was a yellow card at the very least and possibly even a red.

The same could be said of a similar high tackle by Guilhem Guirado on Dave Kearney that left the Irish wing unable to continue. The tackle looked menacing, and the fact that Kearney got up before eventually leaving the field with a shoulder injury rather than a neck one probably just about spared the French captain a card.

In a physical game the TMOs had chickened out. Something needs to be done.

The wet conditions always meant more scrums than usual, and that must have worried Joe Schmidt given how he craves a world class tight head.

Mike Ross becomes Ireland's most valuable asset once again ahead of the English match. Nathan White was in serious trouble last week against Wales and in fairness to the 34-year-old with limited international experience under his belt, and after just six days since his last hit out, it was a lot to ask for him to compete.

Ireland looked far more inventive than France especially in the early exchanges with Ireland at least trying to play in the wider channels but their attack was not helped by an injured Jared Payne, who looked uncomfortable but battled bravely.

France looked dreadful in attack. They had no ability to clear their lines with some woeful exit kicking and they were unable to build any real continuity phases without coughing up the ball.

But they just hung in as Ireland failed to capitalise and in the second half, a changed French side dominated, and camped in Ireland's 22 for about 15 minutes.

A succession of set scrums, any one of which could have resulted in a penalty try, eventually had the same result. A quick heel saw the excellent French scrumhalf go on a wide arching run. Robbie Henshaw was far too quick off his line and allowed French fullback Maxime Medard to easily step inside him.

Johnny Sexton left the field again and you have to wonder how long his career will last at this rate of attrition.

The first thing an understandably cold Ian Madigan did was put the ball straight into touch and any chance Ireland had of salvaging a late win was gone.

It was a bad day given that the French were not a good team, they just had a good scrum and Ireland left points all over the park. Joe Schmidt selection for England will be interesting now given all the enforced changes he will have to make due to injury. More unfortunate from an overall point of view was the fact that the Six Nations teams seemed to have learnt little for the last world cup? The game over here is still one based on total physicality and power, even at under 20 level, one now asks the question of how long can this game of attrition last?.

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