Monday 20 November 2017

Ireland are left wanting more but title hopes alive

Garry Ringrose in action for Ireland
Garry Ringrose in action for Ireland

ANALYSIS: Ruaidhri O'Connor

It was instructive that at the end of both halves on Saturday, Ireland kept playing long after the clock went red. They wanted more from this game and they will be frustrated that they didn't get it.

Yes, this was a record Six Nations winning margin over France and, yes, the defence managed to shut out Les Bleus, but perhaps the visiting coach Guy Noves summed things up best when he said: "In the end we were beaten by a superior team."

According to the World Rugby rankings, only the champions England are better than Ireland right now and this 10-point win largely reflected both sides' place in the greater scheme of things.

However, there will be concern within the Irish camp about their second slow start in three games.

They were blessed to be just 6-0 down and with a full complement of players after a couple of cynical interventions in the first 20 minutes.

Their ball control in contact was poor, while their attacking play - bar one or two moments from Garry Ringrose - lacked the ability to penetrate the line.

The Television Match Official correctly denied France a try, while the visitors threatened to cause major problems with their width.

Ireland, though, responded. Their dominant maul and superior half-backs won them a tough game in difficult conditions, but we won't know whether it was by enough for a few weeks yet.

Conor Murray's try got them back on track and Johnny Sexton guided them home, but while they'll take the win and move on, they will also lament missed opportunities.

Ireland's leadership corps seemed fully aware of the bigger picture and looked intent on securing a bonus point during the first-half, when they routinely turned down shots at goal to go for tries.

That they didn't get them was down to the lack of accuracy in the '22' that has so often hampered them under Schmidt.

After half-time they switched tack and focused on securing the result through the boot of Sexton, as conditions worsened.

Attacking in the '22' is, modern coaches argue, the most difficult place to make a break because all of the opposition defenders are in the line, but it doesn't seem to bother Scotland, who are showing Ireland the way in this department.

Disruption

Schmidt lamented the fact that his team were unable to play off scrum ball and complained about the disruption at the breakdown - two things they can expect again next time out.

On Friday week, Ireland go back to Cardiff, where two years ago a slow start and a lack of attacking incision cost them a Grand Slam.

Speaking on RTE, former Ireland winger Shane Horgan summed up the frustration with Ireland's lack of penetration and seeming over-reliance with one-out runners.

"When they got down into the '22', which is a consistent problem with this Irish team, they were so one-dimensional. I know the ball was slippy, I know it's difficult to execute skill, but there were moments when they had men over and they didn't move the ball to that space," said Horgan.

While his fellow panellist Ronan O'Gara's views fell more into line with Joe Schmidt's on the topic, the point still stood.

If Ireland want to win this Six Nations and push on to become a better team, they need to improve their scoring rate when they get into the opposition red-zone.

The head coach recognises the need to entertain in the results business and felt his team had tried to do just that in the face of French resistance.

"I like to think it is a mix of both," Schmidt said.

"I think we actually showed some endeavour today. A couple of line-breaks were on the back of some pretty good interplay and in conditions like that it is pretty hard to do, particularly with the high pressure defence that the French have. I think it is very hard.

"In the past, if you kept the ball for a while you would see a little bit of a chink, but they are going really well defensively.

"There is evidence of that based on Scotland, who got a bit of a fortuitous try with Tim Swinson getting away and under the posts and England had to work incredibly hard to get a score against them.

"So on the back of that, even going further back to November, when teams have had the ball in play and actually tried to compete with the French, they have been very hard to break down.

"Some of what we had planned today was harder to implement, obviously because of the conditions.

"We were hopeful they might improve in the afternoon, but the omens were not great when it was pretty good in the morning. We sort of knew it might be coming.

"I like to think we mixed it up, I like to think that within the limits of the conditions - both the atmospheric and the conditions that the French impose upon you - that we did a bit of both."

While there was no doubt about how well Sexton played over the course of the 80 minutes, it was interesting that Robbie Henshaw pointed to some issues with the re-adjustment from playing with Paddy Jackson.

"I found that in the first-half we got a bit out of shape at times, it was a bit frantic and we got out of our system. In the second-half, we cleaned it up well and we got some good space in behind," the centre said.

"Conor (Murray) and Johnny led that. It's great to have Johnny back and the two of them were singing off the same hymn sheet. There was no doubt that he'd always perform in green.

"I think Johnny likes to get a second touch on the ball in first-phase attack.

"It was a play we looked at during the week, but we didn't look at it too much because the conditions during the week were pretty atrocious to train in.

"It (the loop) is one of Johnny's favourite plays and we got some good space outside the French defence and it definitely challenged them. Garry (Ringrose) ran it really well too.

"It was frustrating in the first-half, we got a good couple of plays, but got out of shape.

"We're trying to get as much as we can from each other and I think Garry had a great game again."

Perhaps that lack of cohesion was inevitable given Sexton had only trained twice with the group before being named in the team and they will be working hard this week and next to ensure they're on the same page against Wales.

Hostile

Earlier in the tournament, Conor O'Shea emphatically declared that Ireland are a much better side than the Welsh, having just prepared his Italy team to take on both outfits in successive weeks.

On Friday week, the hostile environs of a night-time kick-off in Cardiff will test Ireland's title credentials.

Welsh backs are to the wall after successive defeats, but with all roads leading to the Aviva Stadium on March 18 and a potential title showdown with England, there will be an Irish determination to stay in the hunt.

With the disappointing opening-day defeat to Scotland now firmly in the rear-view mirror and England continuing to struggle, a third title in four seasons is now a real possibility.

The win over France keeps them on track, but the performance will need to improve as the tournament enters its end-game.

Irish Independent

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