Murray as Lions captain, Sexton in charge and another sleepy start - What we learned from Ireland's win vs France
Here are five things we learned from Ireland's 19-9 win vs France this evening.
SEXTON IN CHARGE
If anyone doubted the fact that the out-half is General Schmidt’s de facto lieutenant, the sight of him over-ruling captain Rory Best and deciding to eschew yet another three-pointer in the opening half illustrated his huge influence.
Despite his long lay-off, and inevitable, initial signs of rustiness - for example a poor missed touch - the Leinster man’s influence grew exponentially and his clever chip sparked the play that over-turned France’s early scoreboard separation.
The early loops didn’t work but when one finally did, it mattered as Ireland built on the platform to score the opening try and his confidence grew the longer the game went on.
A superb 50th minute drop-goal from range, notwithstanding the fact he had an advantage, demonstrated an individual in supreme command. As if he had never been away.
In the game’s best passage of play, Sexton was marked absent with injury after a late hit from Eddy Ben Arous but still got up to make a tackle as France counter-attacked. His defence was phenomenal. He’s back with a bang.
IRELAND ACCELERATE ON MOVING DAY
The mid-championship point arrived today and Ireland needed to make a decisive statement of intent - were they as fallible as Edinburgh or as irrepressible as Rome?
The answer was somewhere in between but it proved more than enough.
They were utterly resolute when they needed to be and this victory sets them up for the final furlong dash to the winning post.
With England expected to carve up against Italy and Wales dropping out of the race after their humbling by the rampant, revived Scots - it seems certainly now down to old rivals Ireland and England to fight it out for the title honours.
However, in a gripping championship that has already taken several predictably unpredictable twists and turns, the prospect of Scotland battling for a Triple Crown in Twickenham in a fortnight could yet throw a spanner in the English works.
After Ireland’s shoddy, sloppy start in Edinburgh, Joe Schmidt would have been determined not to see a repeat so soon afterwards. Yet in many respects, his side were just as slack in the opening quarter here too.
Unlike Scotland, France were not good enough to take advantage despite trying to reach the wider channels.
Ireland were sloppy in possession and conceded huge yardage and territory with sloppy knock-ons from their key back-row ball-carriers in the opening half-hour while the scrum and lineout produced no significant early pressure.
MURRAY REMINDER FOR LIONS CAPTAINCY
There is an ongoing debate about the candidates for the Lions captaincy this summer and it seems to us that the fact that a demoted Welsh captain may be preferred to a newly-installed one, smacks of Warren Gatland casting a favour on his current international charges.
Man of the Match Conor Murray yet again proved that he is easily the best scrum-half on form in world rugby and he is streets ahead of the competition in this half of the hemisphere.
Why should he not now be considered as a genuine contender for the coveted role, even if some may cavil at the fact that Ireland would then have assumed the captaincy three times since 2005?
He has few realistic contenders to challenge his starting place - Rhys Webb, really? - and he has the aura and temperament to tackle the most fearsome task in rugby next summer.
BACK-ROW BEHEMOTHS BECALMED
Louis Picamoles and CJ Stander came into this game as the two most potent carriers in the championship so far, with the Munster man’s hat-trick in Rome capping a man of the match display.
His 46 carries and 12 defenders beaten were a championship high while the Northampton man had beaten a championship-leading 13 men and had made an astonishing 201 metres despite facing England and Scotland; he also led the championship with seven off-loads.
However, Sexton was Ireland’s most potent attacker in terms of metres made as the back-rowers were largely nullified; Picamoles did make his usual collection of off-loads but his carries had minimal effect.
Stander, too, edged into the 20s in terms of carries but struggled to make significant yardage and knocked the ball on when his side were in decent attacking positions. Picamoles also made the crucial late penalty as he visibly wilted.