Sunday 25 February 2018

Comment: Uncharacteristic flaws are beginning to appear in this Ireland side

Frances Damien Chouly in action with Ireland's Mike McCarthy
Frances Damien Chouly in action with Ireland's Mike McCarthy
David Kelly

David Kelly

Perhaps history reminds us not to be churlish about ever being confident of winning here.

At times, Ireland seemed so superior that they would boss this afternoon; instead, they ended up having their faces rubbed in the sodden Parisien turf.

Their championship hopes are buried now, too.

Fatigue will certainly be offered as an excuse but fundamental errors and sloppiness allowed France to threaten a contest far beyond the point when a debate about the winner should have been necessary.

Give a sucker an even break, they say, and Ireland were certainly generous in that regard. France picked the wrong front-row.

When they eventually had their best trio on the field, a tired, sloppy Ireland had not done enough to give them the leeway required to stem the inevitable tide.

It was almost like a smash and grab effort from a home side, if such an oxymoron can be said to exist.

Ireland's Jonathan Sexton looks dejected as he leaves the field of play after the 2016 RBS Six Nations match at Stade de France, Paris

Their bench was stronger than Ireland's, certainly and Joe Schmidt's side, already depleted with injury, shipped further heavy damage here, too, as the nation wonders will Jonathan Sexton ever again finish an Ireland game.

Ireland didn't score in the second-half, another blank effort following last week's collapse against Wales.

A lot of uncharacteristic flaws are beginning to appear in a side that have earned the pedigree of being able to hide them.

Whoever remains standing for the trip to Twickenham - and the front-row remains a pressing issue and Mike Ross will certainly return to anchor the scrum - will be faced with a fiendishly difficult task on this evidence as confidence may tumble.

Ireland led by six at the break but should have led by more, one felt, particularly as exhaustion was creeping imperceptibly into Irish legs.

They refused one shot at goal and fluffed this subsequent attack; CJ Stander knocked on - as he did twice last wek - as Ireland pressed and Rory Best skewed an attacking lineout throw on the French 22.

France rarely looked like scoring apart from Plisson's sole success from two penalty efforts and they scarcely visited the Irish 22; in actual fact, they were slightly more impressive without the ball, than with it. But only just.

Referee Jaco Peyper was calling the tune but hit a few bum notes; refusing to brandish yelllow cards for outrageous late hits redolent of far-off days when this city usd to a veritable killing field for Irish hopes.

Jonathan Sexton, always a target for the French as they boasted again during the week, was elbowed by Yohann Maestri just moments after being lectured by the official about "rugby values."

Sexton stayed on but Dave Kearney was not so lucky as Guilhem Guirado tackled him illegally and the winger departed in some distress, clutching his shoulder.

Ireland's flanker Sean O'Brien lies on the pitch during the Six Nations international rugby union match between France and Ireland

He followed Sean O'Brien into the infirmary; a suggestion from the TV gantry by former captain Brian O'Driscoll hinted at cruciate ligament damage; his battle of of wounded knee may dictate the rest of his championship.

Mike McCarthy departed with blood streaming from a cut above the eye; it was less a case of when Ireland would win this game but whether they would have enough fit bodies to do so.

Jared Payne was carrying a thigh issue; Conor Murray groggily got to his feet after another breakdown in play.

At times, Ireland were too adventurous for their own good, when they needed merely trust their structure as minor fault-lines began to appear in the admittedly less creased thin blue line of defence.

The scrum was a positive, too; Jack McCarthy twice destroying Uini Antonio; he was a surprise selection in any event; it was more surprising that he lasted so long here.

France fumbled and fostered in possession but Ireland struggled to make hay from turnover possession; they expended an exhaustive effort for such slim pickings.

The pattern continued; Ireland turning over French possession but then being sloppy themselves while France toiled, at one stage Jules Plisson booting the ball dead from their own ten metre line.

France's Maxime Medard is tackled by Ireland's Rory Best

Eventually, Guy Noves fixed his front-row problems but there were more problems elsewhere that remained insoluble.

Ireland were playing in the wrong areas; Sexton effecting an ill-judged chip and chase in centrefield which just handed the French the ball. They didn't know what to do with it but Ireland were giving them enough chances to find out.

Ireland produced a nice phased play move and Rob Kearney broke the lin with support; he rarely off-loads, which suits this team's style but he did this time; sadly, to a French player.

France strode forward, backed by the rousing Stade de France but were undone by a forward pass; there was a sense of giving suckers an even break.

It was a day to resort to the boot and it was a surprise that Ireland took so long to find this out, too.

Slowly, they pinned the hesitant French back in their territory; as much as they relish the thuggery of trench warfare, they have a disdain for aerial combat.

But Ireland constantly undermined marginal gains by making poor errors; their inability to score tries was a handicap when they were winning; it is not nearing an emergency.

The scrum was an issue too, and eventually Peyper whistled a penalty against the green pack. McCarthy departed, floored and visibly in distress as he simply lay prone, unable to get off the ground.

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France threatened a knock-out blow of their own, too, from a five-metre lineout. They got over the line; the referee was on his hands and knees to see if there was a try.

Ireland were on their hands and knees, too. Rob Kearney did magnificently to hold up Damien Chouly as the crowd whistled for a positive judgement from the TMO. "No obvious clear grounding," quoth he.

A scrum was awarded; merely a temporary reprieve. The crowd lustily sang "la Marsellaise". Penalty France. They introduced a heavier man into an already heavier pack. Penalty France.

Three strikes and a knockabout blow awaited. The scrum did not move, but a penalty ensued nonetheless. The cock didn't crow; Peyper didn't pipe.

The fourth time, France went wide instead; Robbie Henshaw, sadly, slipped and the door opened for Maxime Medard and it was bolted by the time Tommy O'Donnell intervened.

Now Jonathan Sexton left in distress, Ian Madigan's first action was to punt the ball into touch on the full, offering France the scrum which returned them to the Irish 22 once more.

They would never leave. Ireland, meanwhile, leave the championship race to others. That a France side this shoddy will tussle for the title rates as a poor reflection of a limp title defence.

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