Sunday 24 March 2019

Neil Francis: We saw cheating in Paris on a scale that is no longer permissible at this level

Ireland's full-back Rob Kearney vies with France's players. Photo: Getty Images
Ireland's full-back Rob Kearney vies with France's players. Photo: Getty Images
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Take some of that you cheating French so-and-sos! If Ireland had come away from yesterday's encounter with a loss the nation would have been sick to the pit of its stomach with yet another injustice. Instead they came away with a victory in the most dramatic circumstances and once again Ireland's icon Johnny Sexton is central to it all.

World Rugby and the refereeing committee will have to have a look at this game in review because yet again we saw cheating on a scale that is no longer permissible at this level and something must be done because it changed the course of this game.

Yet another two-point margin separating the sides. Ireland could have won this game by 15-20 points if they had been a little bit more accurate. That they didn't was down to the free rein that Nigel Owens allowed at the breakdown, where the French lay over the ball and did not roll away so often that I thought there had been a rule change just before the game.

That denied Ireland the sort of fast ball they required to put the French to bed and it gave the hosts a toehold in the game as Ireland could not register the score they required to pull away. The last 10 minutes of this strength-zapping encounter should have been Ireland's, but they were undone in a series of plays.

Rob Kearney taken out off the ball by Kevin Gourdon, who admittedly was keeping his eye in the sky, but the ball was two or three metres away from the contact zone and he took Kearney out of the equation without giving him a chance to contest the ball. A clear-cut penalty! Owens went back to give a scrum to France and from this they managed to manufacture a score - one that will have Joe Schmidt hopping with rage.

With the game breaking up and the smart money on Ireland's superior fitness and discipline to tell, Kearney got a good clearance away to touch at the 10-metre line. The French had to chase the game, and Anthony Belleau had no option but to take a quick throw-in to his new scrum-half Antoine Dupont. Ireland's line and chase let them down and Conor Murray, normally ultra-reliable, missed Dupont and he got a little bit of gas up when he cut down the short side.

Kearney had come up in a fractured line and when the pass went to Teddy Thomas, the French winger was flying and he cut back in. At this point Thomas was travelling and very worryingly left Jacob Stockdale for dead as the Ulster winger lost his concentration and focus. The Frenchman skinned Stockdale and was too close to the line when Sexton and Keith Earls affected some desperate goal-line tackles.

The sense of despair and familiar feeling of nausea as the French yet again looked to have outdone us in the cruellest manner was tangible, yet with seven minutes on the clock there was enough time. Ireland just had to get the ball back. They didn't have to force it.

The French got a scrum 40 metres out and Dupont went open. As he cut back in, you could see his right knee went from underneath him and as it gave there was a grimace of pain before contact with an Ireland tackler. At no stage was he concussed. The boy evidently hurt his knee and he went down. The match doctor insisted there be a HIA and this permitted starting scrum-half Maxime Machenaud to come back on to close the game off. Ireland's players, and skills coach Richie Murphy, protested with Owens that it could not possibly be a concussion or require a HIA.

As Ireland's players remonstrated,the ghost of Thierry Henry's actions laughed at the Irish once more. "We're going to do you again!" Ireland lost their concentration understandably in the furore and got hooshed off the following scrum, and Owens awarded the penalty. It should never have happened - also, Tadhg Furlong had a phenomenal game and should have played the 80. His replacement John Ryan got minced and Ireland's comfort blanket was gone.

Belleau had an easy kick to ensure that Ireland would now need a try to win the game. The sporting gods granted us favour as Belleau's kick went a metre left. Ireland lived.

Who was doing the thinking at this stage? There was nothing that Joe Schmidt could do - he replaced Stockdale immediately with Fergus McFadden and trusted his players to stick to his systems.

Sexton's value to any side has never been more ably demonstrated than in what he did in the last five minutes. What you have to ask is what are people doing when bullets are flying and the chips are down and your team psychologically is on the back foot. Trust your systems and trust your best player to think his way through the maze.

Sexton's fingerprints were all over this stunning revival, but it was so much more than the beautifully struck 43-metre drop-goal. From the missed penalty, the first thing that Ireland had to do with 77 minutes and 30 seconds gone on the clock was get the ball. Quite how they managed to go 41 phases in 5 minutes and 12 seconds to rescue their season. . . well I can't answer that but I can point to Sexton's crucial interventions.

The quality of Sexton's kick-off was sensational; the accurate, low kick aimed at Iain Henderson which only went three or four metres over the 22-metre line was an even better kick than the winning drop-goal.

It would have been a travesty if Ireland had lost this match to a try scored by a man wearing a bun in his hair in an international. Thomas is handy with the ball going forward but he has consistently proved himself to be a clown, particularly in key moments and his attempt to win the kick-off was pathetic. That said Henderson did brilliantly to recover the ball, and Ireland had 40 metres and five minutes to go to recover themselves.

Sexton handled the ball 15 times in the helter-skelter period that followed, including one vital break on the left-hand side which got Ireland a critical 10 metres further up the park. And 30 seconds before the clock went into red Sexton made another key play, clearing Benjamin Fall at a ruck when it looked like Robbie Henshaw had gone too far and was isolated.

The French in fairness showed some discipline when they had the smell of victory in their nostrils and knew that they couldn't give away a penalty - they clearly felt that with a slippy ball and a greasy surface, Ireland would soon make a mistake.

Ireland's play master realised this too and in the white hot heat of battle played the heads up rugby that is vital for decision makers and saw that Virimi Vakatawa was 12 metres too wide. Whether Earls was screaming for the ball or not he was getting it and the execution of the kick was a thing to behold. Earls took the ball out of the sky brilliantly as the outflanked Vakatawa made an embarrassment of himself.

The phases went on and the Irish forwards, who were noticeably tiring, kept their form and their focus. In the middle of all this Sexton had time to stretch his calf just to make sure that it wouldn't seize up when the moment came. Ireland's most dependable forwards made the drop-goal possible.

Henderson, who had a sensational game but was running on fumes, got a vital 10 metres across the gain-line.

From the next phase Peter O'Mahony, who had run himself to a standstill, managed another vital five or six, which put them in range. Murray's pass was his crispest delivery of the day and he found Sexton on his right side so that he did not have to make an adjustment.

The St Mary's man kept his head down and followed through. He waited before he celebrated but there was no doubt about the flight of the ball - it was going over.

A really sweet way to finish a game; one to savour and one that sets Ireland up for something special this season - that is if they survive the Monday morning video session from Schmidt. This should have been an easy victory. The good news is that hopefully they have got the bad one out of the way.

Take me to the cardiac unit straight away.

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