Wednesday 21 February 2018

Neil Francis: Missed opportunity to whip the French as S&M (Sexton and Murray) dominate

Conor Murray is tackled by Kevin Gourdon. Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Conor Murray is tackled by Kevin Gourdon. Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

A husband and wife discover some bondage and S&M material in their teenage son's bedroom.

At a loss as to what to do, the husband turns to the wife and says, "Well we can't spank him." 

19-9 and a pretty comprehensive victory but am I the only one thinking that this should have been an awful lot more? If Ireland had even converted 50 per cent of their close-in chances they would have spanked France - and I'm talking try bonus point here. 

The conditions were much tougher than they looked and it was agony when Ireland, in a number of promising attacking encounters in the French half, knocked the ball on. Ireland were an oasis of calm in a highly physical game and out-thought their opponents all over the park. So when they review their performance really there could have been 25 points in it instead of 10.

This game would always be won in the second half but it didn't look that way. With less than a quarter gone France looked like they had scored through Remi Lamerat but Gael Fickou knocked on in the lead-up. I would have been confident of a win even after being 10 points down but Ireland have been caught cold already once in this Championship - and once is enough.

Despite all the talk by both sets of media, France are a depressingly one-dimensional side and their passing under pressure just wasn't good enough yesterday. They couldn't get hold of the ball either and it was a sad sight watching them passing the ball and themselves into more trouble.

I wonder was Jack Charlton on secondment to the Irish coaching management. The second half showed how the Irish can crush the will of a side and Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, with an incredible array of mixed kicking, pinned France back deep in their own 22.

This put the French under the sort of pressure that they cannot deal with. Ireland's back-row recovered from a shaky start at the breakdown to eventually control but not dominate this phase.

Is it unfair to our guests to say that Ireland didn't have to be at their best to win yesterday? The French back-row, although aggressive and big in stature, could not get their backs going forward and France really do need an outhalf who can control the game for them, particularly when they are on the back foot.

Camille Lopez is just short of a functionary and does not have a forceful personality to encourage those around him. Lopez can pass the ball but, as I said in this column earlier in the week, their midfield cannot. Whenever the French did get some possession when they were going left to right the ball went to ground too often, and the further the match went on the more tired and erratic the passing became and the less inclined their tiring and lumbering pack came back to rescue them.

France will still be trying this passing game next year and it may improve, but they are still a mediocre side. Their national league has turned steak into hamburgers.

It was important that Ireland engineer a good start, particularly with home advantage, but they were slow out of the blocks and they came off second best in the opening exchanges where both sides were sorting each other out and softening each other up.

Defensively, Ireland were very good. Line-speed throughout the 80 was uniform and disciplined. People forget that line-speed is all about concentration and in a very physical game line-speed slows down when you get tired. The fact that Ireland were in France's face for almost the entire game - that was very satisfying.

Apart from a few scares and some well-worked scrambles, Ireland never really looked in danger. I think what we saw yesterday will be a carbon copy of the England game in three weeks' time. England, however, have a superior skill set and will present far more problems at tight.

The foundation of this victory was a faultless performance at lineout time. The stat of 22 out of 22 in this phase tells you a lot. The fact that Ireland had 22 lineouts meant that they were winning the kicking game - could they take advantage of this? Toner had one of his great days and his ears must have popped when he came back out of the sky with the ball in his hands.

France did not always compete in the air but they were not able to upset the throw and Ireland picked up several French throws again at crucial times. In terms of pacing a performance, Ireland worked this one very well and when France substituted half of their tight five after 50 minutes you knew that Ireland were going to outlast them and finish stronger.

This observer was enthused by Ireland's determination to score at the end of both halves. In the first half with the clock seconds away from red, Ireland chose to play and they got very, very close to some real reward.

They didn't have enough control in the end and yet another knock-on and another phase or two might have seen them over. For the French it was a demonstration of Ireland's signal personality that 'we're gonna score whenever we can, no matter what time it is or where we are on the pitch'. Ireland did it again at the end of the game when the match was already won and yet they chased more points, which is highly encouraging.

Kieran Marmion casually put it out in the end but this was a minute or two into the red. Maybe recognition from the side that they should have scored more tries than they managed yesterday. The quality of Ireland's 9 and 10 was the real difference yesterday and you were looking at the Lions Test half-backs, and it was refreshing to see Sexton grumbling as he was substituted in the 68th minute for Paddy Jackson.

A first-class performance from our halves and, if they stay healthy, Ireland will win the remaining matches in this Championship.

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