Wednesday 12 December 2018

Ireland must heed warning

Schmidt targets improvements after nerveless Sexton rescues Six Nations campaign at the death

Tadhg Furlong feels the force of France duo Paul Gabrillagues (L) and Guilhem Guirado’s tackle at the Stade de France on Saturday. Photo: Sportsfile
Tadhg Furlong feels the force of France duo Paul Gabrillagues (L) and Guilhem Guirado’s tackle at the Stade de France on Saturday. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

By now, the euphoria of the dramatic Parisian end-game has faded and the Ireland squad are firmly back on terra firma.

As they travelled back from the French capital yesterday, the key question in their mind was how they ended up having to play their get out of jail card in a match they should have put to bed comfortably.

That they didn't will concern them, even if the refereeing of Nigel Owens played a big part in France's resurgence.

The Welsh official made two big calls that went against Joe Schmidt's side, and his policing of the breakdown didn't suit Ireland, but the visitors also shot themselves in the foot at times and Johnny Sexton might have saved himself some drama had he nailed his kick to make it a nine-point game with 17 minutes remaining.

Instead, Ireland gave the sucker an even break and needed a heroic 41-phase effort and a long-range Sexton drop-goal to win it. after Teddy Thomas' try.

It was a Reeling in the Years moment, a remarkable finish to an unremarkable game, and it keeps Ireland's dreams of a Grand Slam intact.

Joe Schmidt: Resolve and resilience. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt: Resolve and resilience. Photo: Sportsfile

However, if they play like they did on Saturday when they roll into Twickenham on St Patrick's Day, then they'll be in trouble. Indeed, the same again wouldn't achieve much against Wales or Scotland either.

And yet, this is Paris. France may be the ninth-ranked team in the world, a team in the infancy of life under a new coach with a raft of inexperienced players, but Ireland's history of failure in this city cannot be discounted. It seemed like a factor as the momentum shifted during the second half, just as it did two years ago .

That they arrested the slide and were able to rescue the result speaks volumes for their self-belief, skill and bottle.

"If you lose your first game, you are playing catch-up the whole way and it is so tough," Schmidt said.

"We have a little bit of security being at home, and getting through something like that, I think it helps build the group together.

"It does strengthen the team bond and hopefully that will give them the resolve and the resilience that is required, because it is such a tough competition… we know we are going to be in similar situations, maybe not right at the end of the game, but similar situations that we are going to have to fight our way through."

Their accuracy was superb, their clarity of thought remarkable given the fatigue they must have experienced.

Sexton epitomised that with his perfectly measured drop-out, pin-point cross-kick to Keith Earls and brilliant drop-goal; Conor Murray's passing never wavered, and the ruck work was superb at times.

They shouldn't have needed it, but now they know what they can do when their backs are against the wall and they can move on to the rest of the tournament with confidence.

Italy, Wales and Scotland visit Dublin the next three games, and home comforts will assist Schmidt and his team in growing their game.

There is plenty to work on, not least in attack where the shape and structure looked good but the end product was lacking.

They will need to score tries to win the tournament, but the visit of Italy - who are on a six-day turnaround after yesterday's game against England - seems the perfect tonic.

For Schmidt, the lack of tries was not a concern.

"We would," he said when asked if Ireland would expect to improve as the tournament progresses.

"We would certainly like to. The surface was unbelievable today - they have certainly improved the surface here, it was magnificent - but sometimes when the surface is really good and the grass gets wet, it becomes a bit slippy, it becomes kind of icy.

"We saw those two knee injuries with (Antoine) Dupont and Josh (van der Flier) - they weren't actually hit by anyone, they fell over. Their knee kinda collapsed when they stepped and they fell over; with both of them, their right foot fell from under them.

"So, conditions were not as we would have liked them but you are going to get that at times, so you have to adapt and cope with that - and I felt we did in every way other than accumulating the points.

"If we had gone 15-6 that's a crucial time when they are forced to maybe play a little bit more and we might profit from that - we work hard in defence. Or they maybe start to feel they are out of the game and we can finish over the top of them, but the way that they got back into the game meant it was us that was scrambling in the end.

"When you have to fight as hard as we did today and you didn't get the tries and you don't get the flash finish that you like, you have got to roll your sleeves up and work a little bit harder to make sure you create those missing things.

"What happened today was we lost our shape; if you look early in the game we actually create really good space on penalty advantage down the left-hand touch and quickly the advantage is blown up and we are given a penalty.

Phases

"I felt we had put the ball through a few phases really effectively - we had our shape about us.

"The longer and more attritional the game it was just getting harder and harder. There was a lot of one-out carries from them and we resorted to it as well as the game got slower and the rucks got slower because as soon as you started make two and three passes you were getting knocked behind the advantage line and it was just too hard to work from back there."

Schmidt is expected to make some changes to his side this week after a brutal 80 minutes against France.

Josh van der Flier is definitely out after suffering a knee injury during the first half, with Dan Leavy primed to take his place. Schmidt may add either Jack O'Donoghue or Sean Reidy to the squad today.

It would be no surprise to see Jack McGrath and Devin Toner rotated into the team, while Rob Herring and Kieran Marmion may see action off the bench.

Fergus McFadden applied some heat on Jacob Stockdale with an excellent cameo of the bench, while this always looked the likely week for Jordan Larmour to make his debut if it's to happen in this window.

But Schmidt won't want to wield his axe too much: momentum is key and this team need to play their way into form.

There are encouraging signs: the dynamic second-row partnership of James Ryan and Iain Henderson showed signs of real promise, while Bundee Aki was excellent.

If they can put it all together and maintain their structure, they are a good team.

And as long as they have Sexton and the will to win they showed in the final five minutes, they'll have a chance.

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