Monday 23 April 2018

Peter Bills: Irish have some front if they think they're up with the very best

Peter Bills

HE made the tackle of the match on big French centre Mathieu Bastareaud, hit tough French back rower Imanol Harinordoquy so hard in one tackle the Basque lost the ball and he almost forced a score near the French line.

But if you want to judge Tommy Bowe's performance at Stade de France on Saturday night, study the tape and you'll see why it's impossible to assess the Irish wing. Fact was, Ireland were stuffed up front and that made life a nightmare for all the Irish backs on an icy night in Paris.

If ever a set of statistics told an absurd tale it was in this 6 Nations game. Ireland finished top in all the following categories: ball won in open play (France 52 Ireland 88), ball won in opponents' 22 (France 11 Ireland 30), ruck and pass (France 39 Ireland 72), passes (France 91 Ireland 184), tackles made (France 111 Ireland 67), minutes in possession (France 27 mins 29 secs Ireland 38 minutes 53 seconds).

So how on earth did Ireland end up losing by the massive margin of 33-10? Quite simple. They got smashed up front by a power performance from the French pack. And with an overwhelming lead of 27-3 with 20 minutes still left, the French eased off, safe in the knowledge that the game was won.

They let Ireland win the ball but Declan Kidney's men still couldn't do anything much with it, save for the try Ulstermen Stephen Ferris and Paddy Wallace made for David Wallace. That was the story of a match which shocked Irish rugby fans.

The French forwards laid the platform for victory by hammering the Irish pack in the set scrums. They scored 10 points when prop Cian Healy was off the field, yellow carded for pulling back scrum half Morgan Parra off the ball.

It was a stupid act and it put the skids under Brian O'Driscoll's men. They could hardly survive in the set scrums and by the time Healy returned, France had carved out a big 17-3 lead. They were never in danger after that.

Ireland had plenty of ball in the final quarter but could do nothing much with it.

That was why it would be unfair to judge Ulsterman Bowe on that display. Any wing threequarter needs to be set up, to be getting go-forward ball with the defence in retreat. On Saturday, Ireland had ball but little of it was the go-forward type. And try as they might, they just couldn't break down a highly organised, disciplined French defence. There were times even in so one-sided a game where Ireland were hammering away at the French line.

But there wasn't the precision of execution in the Irish game we have come to expect.

They had to play virtually the whole game under heavy pressure and the mistakes crept in. They may have made 184 passes to France's 91 but who scored three tries to one? France.

The Frenchmen were much sharper going forward, given a wonderful attacking platform by their pack. Unlike the Irish backs who often received scrappy, poor quality ball going backwards, the French backs had a Rolls Royce ride.

It was inevitable France would stroll home and their classy backs provided the icing on the cake. No wonder Irish captain Brian O'Driscoll called it such an impressive all-round display by the hosts.

On St Valentine's weekend, this was a real massacre of Ireland's rugby hopes. The deflated tone of the Irish press conference afterwards told its own story.

Ireland have major problems in their front row. And until they solve them, they are going to be vulnerable to the best sides in the world.

France certainly looked that in Paris on Saturday, whatever the statistics may have suggested.

Source: Belfast Telegraph

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