Saturday 18 November 2017

Neil Francis: Ireland needed strong men in the middle... Jaco Peyper and the TMO failed

Dave Kearney and Jonathan Sexton were the victims of some unacceptable hits today
Dave Kearney and Jonathan Sexton were the victims of some unacceptable hits today
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

All a scoreline of 10-9 does is illustrate the agony of what should have been. The score might as well have been 50-9. There is just such a sense of indifference to a blow-out whereas a one-point margin cuts to the bone.

Ireland bled themselves dry yesterday and were more strategically sophisticated than France who are still meandering around in the fog. Being mentally prepared only matters if you have the horses to run and, by being surprisingly resilient, Ireland were still in the game till the very last minute.

Even in the pitifully few matches that Ireland have won here or in the games where they have come close to their hosts, they have always been running on fumes in the last 10 or 15 minutes with bravery and a sense of survival as their only fuel to keep themselves going.

France are awful and they were clueless in terms of how to deal with Ireland. You would wonder just what is ahead of Guy Noves.

He has a bottomless pool of deficiency and they are fishing for direction, but he is an innocent bystander to the direction the club game in France is going. His team still can't pass and they are no further along the line to rediscovering their heritage.

On the other side, Joe Schmidt has spoon fed his team some form and he has brought a limited side to the boil again. The result is everything and so you can pick the positives out of your arse, it makes not a whit of difference. Ireland will not be defending their Championship this year. Irrespective of what they do further down the line this season, this match was so winnable that it will take a week or two to recover.

The focus lies firmly on Guy Noves. From the reaction of the French players after the final whistle you would think that they had just won the World Cup. No win in five matches against the Irish must have hurt deep and I suppose revenge for Cardiff may have been a motivating factor, but you have got to have some backs if there was to be a backlash and France in possession going wide were a liability to themselves. Ireland really didn't have to think that hard about how and where to make their tackles.

And so we look for clues that are not immediately obvious. I must say I have respect for everything that Guy Noves has done, but was his team selection a masterclass in the 23-man game or was it a moment of unthinking stupidity? When the French picked their team mid-week nobody knew with any certainty that it would be a horrible, miserable, wet day in Paris. The scrum would be the discipline of the day.

I'm not sure if even Hercule Poirot could deduce why Jefferson Poirot was chosen to start at loosehead, nor for that matter the gargantuan Uini Atonio. To make your visitors so welcome in Paris with such an accommodating scrum ensured that Ireland not only got a foothold in the game but completely dominated the first 50 minutes.

Did Noves think that the sap would be run out of Ireland's tight five by the time he introduced Rabha Slimani and Eddy Ben Arous? France's premier scrummaging unit came on very early in the second half and the dynamic of the game changed once they did. The Irish, though, could and should have been out of sight. Half a dozen scrum penalties came on the back of renewed scrummaging dominance. Ireland coped but it just shows the value of having a scrum, particularly in Paris.

When I saw the French try I thought it was a moment of genius - three scrum penalties in a row and penalty advantage and yet Ireland were still standing. You can continue on the theme where you try and subjugate Ireland at the five-metre scrum under the posts but Ireland were coping admirably and sometimes in these situations a contrarian referee would award a penalty against the attacking side. Every play is loaded with risk. As Ireland were packing down there is no question that the front five would have turned to their back-row and said "stay down and scrummage" because Ireland were under pressure at that stage and their back row would have to stay packed down a second or two longer.

France now had the luxury of bringing in one of their outfield players on a slant and that is exactly what they did. My first thought was that they caught Ireland cold. There was quick channel-one ball and Machenaud scooped and collected, fed Plisson who let Medard come in on an angle.

Henshaw couldn't cover the break back inside and O'Donnell, because he had to scrummage, was a second late coming up to the line to close off space. Medard broke his despairing tackle and scored. At that stage the French pack had moved itself around. Damien Chouly had gone to openside and Loann Goujon was packing down at No 8 - he does not look like the most intellectually enlightened forward of all time. Only the French knew what they were trying to do. Or did they?

I think their try was down to happenstance and a little bit of unplanned adventure. On the replay Goujon had tried to trap the ball but missed it. He hadn't a clue what was going on and instead what I thought was a pre-planned move was something that was done off the cuff. If Goujon had trapped the ball, it would not have gone outside.

Still, the French managed to convert a period of pressure when Ireland had withstood almost everything the home side had thrown at them. It was a commendable stand by Ireland based on community of interest and expression of team solidarity.

The fact that the French had a full complement on the field will be a matter of debate. Jaco Peyper had the air of a man who was double-parked outside the stadium. There were two moments during the game where everybody in the rugby community will wonder what was he doing.

The French had reverted to type for this game and in the 13th minute Maestri saw an opportunity to take Sexton out. In the Vinnie Jones textbook of thuggery this was badly executed. He had chosen his moment well - Sexton had long got rid of the ball and was blindsided by the French lock. He went for the elbow to the side of the head and knocked Sexton to the ground. Always a far more potent blow when you don't see it coming, but he gets marks deducted because he didn't know where the referee was.

Jaco Peyper, to his shame, was two metres behind him, saw everything and as he quite incredibly only awarded a penalty, he must be ruled out of contention for any further serious matches at this level.

A deliberate malicious and calculated blow well after the ball was gone is at the very least a yellow card. A strong referee would have gone for a red. Just 14 minutes later Guilhem Guirado almost took Dave Kearney's head off in a tackle, executed at incredible pace. Guirado's arm/shoulder wrapped around Kearney's windpipe and as he followed through with this extremely dangerous contact, his head connected with Kearney's head.

It is as clear as day from the replay. Peyper also awarded a penalty - confirming that he had seen the tackle. The TMO would have seen it too and yet a straight red card which this foul warranted didn't even come in for consideration. The fact that Guirado will receive a heavy suspension by the citing officer isn't worth a warm pitcher of piss at this stage.

The action of dismissing the French captain should have taken place on the pitch. A seven-man scrum for the last 53 minutes of the match would have allowed Ireland to comfortably close out the game. Nobody likes to moan on the back of a loss, but the game needs strong men on the field and Peyper and his TMO failed this game miserably and should not be allowed to referee a match of this importance again.

From Ireland's perspective, yet again the curse of not scoring for long periods of the game came back to haunt them. Ireland did not score from the 37th minute onwards.

Like I said on Thursday, this Irish team has to keep the scoreboard ticking over. A grievous loss!

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