Ireland punished by Medard’s late body blow
France 10 Ireland 9
Swings and roundabouts, Noel Murphy used to say in the old days, was the way the game worked. We understood what he meant but never agreed that you couldn't influence the cycle along the way. You could have applied it though to what happened in Paris yesterday in a game Ireland left behind them.
As the clock was counting down in a wet and miserable Stade de France, and France had shifted the game on its axis, it seemed there was a ray of sunshine smiling on the home team, Ireland got the break they needed to work their way up the field. There were five-and-a-half minutes left - plenty of time to work your way into penalty or drop-goal range. You need the right calls to be made for this to happen, and as the green shirts were working their way out of their own half, the ball was slapped down out of a tackle for what we expected referee Jaco Peyper to call as a penalty. Instead he saw it was an unintentional knock-on.
At that stage of the game it was a huge call, and an odd one given what was at stake. A scrum to France at that point was like a police escort out of the stadium with the match points tucked away. Game over.
We're not suggesting it would inevitably have been 'game on', but at least it would have continued in the France half of the field, and at the very least we would have got a different endgame. Instead that turned into a series of picking and jamming which is hard to interrupt. The crowd were still singing by the time Peyper called it a day.
Hard on the heels of last Sunday's battle with Wales, this was another costly adventure for Ireland. Of the casualties - Seán O'Brien, Mike McCarthy, Johnny Sexton and Dave Kearney - the outhalf seemed in the best shape. Peyper had a far bigger role in all of this than he would have wanted. A week ago he was doing a Super rugby warm-up in Harare between the Bulls and the Cheetahs. This was altogether different. And he struggled, badly.
At half-time you would have got fairly long odds on Ireland not scoring after the break in a game where they were better than their opponents all over the field. But that's what happened. The arrival of Rabah Slimani and Eddy Ben Arous changed the complexion of the scrum battle, and if Joe Schmidt seemed slow to look to his bench then clearly it's because he doesn't trust it.
Remarkably, we had almost as many scrums as lineouts (20 versus 21), and once the cavalry arrived in blue this was a phase Ireland wanted to avoid.
The killer was that Ireland got to 65 minutes before digging a hole for themselves. A very poor clearing kick from Rob Kearney, in the lead up to that, allowed France to build momentum which previously had been largely beyond them. They never really looked back, for once in Irish territory decisions started going their way. Their only complaint can have been Peyper's decision not to card an Irish forward in the build-up to Maxime Medard's try for repeated scrum penalties. It didn't matter.
The first 40 minutes had been as good as Ireland have ever had at this venue. At its end you might have hoped that the gap between the teams was a bit bigger, but perhaps that was expecting too much for while it seemed that Ireland had dominated territory, in fact their superiority was only 58 per cent against 42 per cent. It would finish exactly the other way around.
What might have got France's stats up in that area was a sustained series of phases in the run-up to the break which saw them go from the edge of their 22 to the edge of Ireland's. And what happened then? Jules Plisson opted to drop a goal. Which he shanked.
They had been making reasonable progress to that point, so it wasn't a great vote of confidence in the way his team was playing that he should have taken that option.
Its effect on Ireland's defence can only have been like a shot in the arm.
And they needed it, for by then they had lost two players. O'Brien's loss before the end of the first quarter was a hammer blow for already he was carrying very strongly. It was on one of those sorties that his leg gave way in what appeared to be a hamstring injury.
Dave Kearney's was sudden-impact stuff however. And how Guilhem Guirado stayed on the field for his high hit is something that will surely cost him time - perhaps the rest of this Six Nations - but Peyper should also have to explain his role in its non-detection.
The entire stadium winced as the France captain emptied his target, at no cost to France.
Equally, after 14 minutes and in an incident that was fairly clear-cut, Yoann Maestri was late on Sexton at the cost of a penalty, but no yellow card.
At least it allowed the Ireland outhalf to open the scoring. That it was another 14 minutes before he could repeat the trick - after Damian Chouly was done for playing the ball on the ground - gave you an idea of the unease among the Irish fans, for their team were clearly the better side, but needed a reward for it.
At that point Ireland's scrum was very good, and Jack McGrath gave Atonio a hard time. Behind they were solid too, from Sexton across the midfield where Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne were up for the fight.
On 32 minutes Plisson pulled back three points with a penalty after Ireland botched an exit - their others had been first class - but Sexton restored the gap just before the break when McGrath won Ireland a scrum penalty.
It was pretty much downhill from there. If Ireland could have survived that scrum series in the last quarter then they might even have won by a comfortable margin, but there was an inevitability to it once it got started.
Mike Ross will be back by the time Schmidt takes them to Twickenham in a fortnight, but who knows what other casualties will have emerged by then. With the prospect of a third successive Championship now gone south, England will be looking to pile on the pressure.
To a tired crew the welcome break will seem very short indeed.
Story of the game
3: Ireland kick an early penalty into the France 22 - line-out to the visitors. But it is a poor throw and, although a Jules Plisson kick is charged down, France eventually clear their lines.
6: Ireland win a lineout and Sean O'Brien gets to within a couple of yards, but when play is switched into midfield the ball is knocked on.
15: Ireland take the lead after France are penalised for a late hit on Jonathan Sexton, who converts.
21: Blow for Ireland when O'Brien's leg gives way as he tries to sidestep and he has to be replaced by Tommy O'Donnell.
29: Dave Kearney injures his shoulder after a tackle by hooker Guilhem Guirado and he is forced off the pitch. Sexton extends Ireland's advantage when he is on target with a second penalty. Fergus McFadden replaces Kearney.
31: Jules Plisson gets France on the board with a penalty.
35: Plisson is well wide of the target with a drop-goal attempt.
39: Ireland turn up the heat on the French scrum and force a penalty. Sexton makes it three from three.
40: France win a penalty straight away, but Plisson misses.
Half-time: France 3 Ireland 9
45: Props Uini Atonio and Jefferson Poirot are replaced by Rabah Slimani and Eddy Ben Arous.
54: Rob Kearney pursues Sexton's high kick and challenges Maxime Medard in the air. It spills loose but Robbie Henshaw knocks on before touching down.
62: France enjoy their first spell of concerted pressure after Maxime Medard sparks a counter-attack. Virimi Vakatawa drives into the Ireland 22, Plisson dummies and goes but his pass is batted away by Andrew Trimble to deny a try. Play is brought back for a penalty and France kick to the corner.
63: France unload their big runners, attacking the Irish line, before it looks as though Damien Chouly is over under the posts, but referee Jaco Peyper can't see any grounding. Neither can the TMO.
67: Penalty under the posts to France. They opt for the scrum and Ireland concede another penalty. France opt again for the scrum and a penalty is conceded.
70: Sexton is clattered and is removed from the action, with Ian Madigan on.
71: French pressure finally pays off as the ball is moved quick off the scrum and Maxime Medard (pictured) scores under the posts. Plisson converts and the home side lead for the first time.
73: France have clearly been on top in the scrum in the second half.
78: Ireland, in possession as they push for an opportunity to win the game, turn the ball over in midfield.
80: France see out the closing minutes to seal victory.
Full-time: France 10 Ireland 9
Scorers - France: Medard try; Plisson pen, con. Ireland: Sexton 3 pens.
France: M Medard; T Thomas (H Bonneval 45), M Mermoz, J Danty (JM Doussain 77), V Vakatawa; J Plisson, S Bezy (M Machenaud 57); J Poirot (R Slimani 45), G Guirado (capt) (C Chat 48), U Atonio (E Ben Arous 45; J Poirrot 75)), A Flanquart, Y Maestri (P Jedrasiak 59), W Lauret, D Chouly, Y Camara (L Goujon 68).
Ireland: R Kearney; A Trimble, J Payne, R Henshaw, D Kearney (F McFadden 29); J Sexton (I Madigan 70), C Murray; J McGrath (J Cronin 74), R Best (capt) (R Strauss 71), N White (T Furlong 62), M McCarthy (D Ryan 63), D Toner, CJ Stander, J Heaslip, S O'Brien (T O'Donnell 19).
Referee: J Peyper (SA).
Sunday Indo Sport