Sunday 25 February 2018

Bernard Jackman: Mental strength to set up shot at glory shows we learned from All Blacks loss

A beaming Johnny Sexton leaves the field at Stade de France. Photo: Sportsfile
A beaming Johnny Sexton leaves the field at Stade de France. Photo: Sportsfile

Bernard Jackman

Johnny Sexton produced a moment of extreme courage and outrageous skill that will last long in the memory. Over the years, Irish rugby has had its fair share of heartbreak in games against France - remember Croke Park? - so we will take this.

Ultimately, Sexton's brilliance won the match for Ireland but it was a game we should have won more comfortably and yet almost conspired to lose. The French try from Teddy Thomas was the game's other moment of brilliance, and although it came out of nowhere, the fear was always there that the six-point lead we held for so long gave the home side a chance.

From the start, we saw a French team that looked incredibly committed and physically powerful - belying their recent poor form. Reports of the demise of the French team are, on this evidence, premature.

Their defensive system yesterday allowed them to have a really big focus on looking for 'jackal' opportunities - stealing the ball - at every breakdown. This tactic was very effective as they forced turnovers, or at the very least slowed the speed of the Irish ruck ball right down. This in turn allowed the home side time to get their defensive line set for the next phase.

France were really narrow in defence and backed themselves to get into the faces of the Irish attackers quickly and win the gainline battle.

Our scrum held up really well considering the pressure Jefferson Poirot, Guilhelm Guirado and Rabah Slimani were putting on it. Ireland's front-row took their scrum height down really low to counteract the power and weight of the French - and if you want to see a masterclass in the technical aspect of good scrummaging hooking then you would struggle to see a better example than Rory Best's ability to get clean strikes at a height that most hookers wouldn't be able to get their foot off the ground.

Despite Ireland not being able to get the momentum and quick ball that we thrive on, we were able to dominate in terms of possession, territory and most importantly points, until the sucker punch of the try.

Ireland's 9-3 half-time lead was well deserved. France had to make around 120 tackles in the first 40 minutes - Ireland only made a third of that.

The decision to start Iain Henderson and James Ryan ahead of Devin Toner was justified as both gave us real power and athleticism around the field. Ryan looks like he has it all despite his inexperience and he had a huge match, plus Devin made an impact off the bench.

But forwards coach Simon Easterby will be disappointed with some of the execution at the lineout, in particular the delivery to Conor Murray which often put him under pressure. Our timing and understanding wasn't as slick as normal but that will come with having played under this intensity.

Murray's box-kicking wasn't as accurate as normal either, which was possibly down to the wet conditions and the pressure the French were putting on him around the breakdown.

Our defence looked solid and we seemed reasonably comfortable in dealing with whatever the French threw at us until Rob Kearney's kick found touch, but the ball didn't finish in the stand and the French moved quickly. Thomas, who had shown flashes of danger, cut us open down the touchline and finished brilliantly and Anthony Belleau converted to put France 13-12 ahead with less than ten minutes left.

Belleau's missed penalty with two minutes to go gave Ireland one last chance to steal the game back. I was hugely impressed with the fitness and mental strength this team showed to regather the '22' drop-out and build 41 phases before Sexton took on the responsibility to go for it in the wind and rain. The actual drop-goal was sublime but I loved the confidence Sexton had moments earlier, and the accuracy, to take on a crossfield kick to the excellent Keith Earls at a point when we were stuck in our half. That kick allowed us to get into their half and the field position to allow him that shot at greatness.

We lost a match against the All Blacks at the death a couple of years ago and we learned a few lessons from that.

France were gutted, but having been written off by so many they will be a factor in this Championship - and remember England have to go there. They look like a better team, and if they can keep that spirit and intensity then French rugby will be competitive again.

Given our record in Paris any win should be celebrated, and to do in such dramatic circumstances should galvanise the squad. With three home games to come, and the first of those against Italy, there is a chance now for Ireland to build up a head of steam and we are still on course for a Championship decider in Twickenham. There is plenty to work on this week.

Wales sent out a serious message yesterday to the rest, just as Warren Gatland had promised. They put in a performance that must rank up there with their best over the last few seasons.

Sure, Scotland underperformed but Wales were exceptional. They produced a huge defensive effort that forced the Scots to make a lot of sloppy individual errors, but their attacking shape was more impressive - it has definitely evolved since last year's competition.

A confident Wales are always real contenders for the championship and the bonus-point win will stand them in good stead as they head to Twickenham next weekend.

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