Determined Irish show grit to take title
Magnificent all-round team performance carries side over line in thrilling encounter
Outhalf Jonathan Sexton forces his way over the French try line in Saturday’s Six Nations Championship match at Stade de France, Paris. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
(Tries: Dulin, Szarzewski. Cons: Machenaud 2. Pens: Machenaud 2)
IRELAND 22 (Tries: Sexton 2, Trimble. Cons: Sexton 2. Pens: Sexton.)
Cometh the hour mark Ireland were not quite in cruise control but were leading 22-13. The Fields echoed literally from the four lower-tier corners of this sweeping stadium where the green had obtained tickets during one of the injury interludes. It felt good to be Irish in Paris.
It would feel even better less than half an hour later but of course it would become, à la the Grand Slam coronation in Cardiff five years ago, a bare-knuckle ride to the finish. For when the game resumed, Conor Murray, who had played superbly and kicked effectively for his chasers, for once overcooked his up and under. Maxime Medard had time to run across field and locate his kindred spirit Yoann Huget, who side-stepped Brian O’Driscoll, and the French were back up and running.
Within five minutes, and whipping up a fair old Gallic storm, Dimitri Szarzewski was adjudged to have grounded the ball against the base of a post by Steve Walsh without recourse to a television match official, when there appeared to be a hint of a knock-on.
Thereafter, Irish players and fans alike held their breath as first Jean-Marc Doussain untypically missed an eminently kickable penalty – Maxime Machenaud having started to cramp – and then Pascal Papé’s pass to Chouly for a 79th minute touchdown was correctly, if lengthily, ruled forward.
No, it could never be easy.
As expected and feared, Les Bleus brought their A game; damn and blast them! French journalists agreed this had been France’s best performance of the tournament by some distance.
France reacts to criticism
Why? “No fear,” said one. It was as if the barrage of criticism in recent weeks – following three desultory performances – had created a siege mentality, but most of all had also liberated them.
The broken-field running and counterattacking of their brilliant back three was this time augmented by a sustained desire to smash into anything in green and also seek to reproduce the kind of off-loading game that is a French hallmark.
The physicality of Louis Picamoles, Damien Chouly and company was immense. Remi Tales gave them more structure, and Mathieu Bastareaud was phenomenal as their primary battering ram.
His third minute break outside Gordon D’Arcy set the tone, although the ensuing failed attempt at an off-load would also be a recurring theme.
Thereafter, D’Arcy’s tackling was unflinching as he, Johnny Sexton and Brian O’Driscoll, helped by the redoubtable Jamie Heaslip, Chris Henry, Paul O’Connell, Rory Best et al, withstood the barrage of straight runners.
Ireland tackled high, as if to reduce French off-loads and also effect choke tackles, which contributed to Sexton’s concussion when Bastareaud led with his forearm. Ireland’s defensive try tally was doubled, but limiting this French team in this mood to just two tries – the first having been from a brilliantly executed cross-kick – and no more line breaks for the remainder of the game, was an astonishing effort.
Their breakdown work, so superbly efficient under Joe Schmidt, was key
. It slowed down French ball sufficiently to reload in defence, as well as stretching France defensively through phases. Hence, one of three scrum penalties and multiple phases off the ensuing line-out culminated in Henry offloading for Sexton to take Bastareaud on the inside and beat Chouly’s tackle to score.
There appears to always be a Schmidt-tailored tactical alteration for each game and here it was noticeable how Ireland looked to go wide before playing blind inside passes to trailing runners. The Irish brains trust had evidently identified that the French defence did not fill in the gaps on the inside. And the home side’s defence didn’t even do so off second phase when O’Driscoll trucked up the ball. Murray exploited the space adroitly to put Andrew Trimble over – and so dynamic on the ball was Trimble, and so hungry for work, that Tommy Bowe again was not missed.
His chasing and aerial work along with Rob and Dave Kearney was impressive once again and limited the scope for Brice Dulin and company for counterattacks. Indeed, for all France’s new-found liberation, Philippe Saint-André’s critics fail to acknowledge the hand he is dealt by the Top 14.
Having the ball in play for long stretches is not commonplace in the Top 14
and brilliant though the French still are off turnovers, they are even more vulnerable themselves after a long attacking spell.
Thus, when Bastareaud’s attempted off-load in a typically strong tackle by Sexton failed to find Huget and Rob Kearney scooped and countered, Ireland had a licence to run. From the recycle they moved wide to Trimble, who made a stunning break past Medard and though O’Driscoll was caught by the winger, astonishingly the first to pick-up from the base was old man O’Connell himself.
Sexton’s second try duly followed. And coupled with another penalty by the outhalf for a 17-point haul, gave him 66 for the championship. That this included a brace of tries in each of his last two games to also make him the tournament’s joint top try scorer underlined how complete his game now is.
The missed penalty and conversion of the first half will not haunt Sexton now and while it was a pity he was not on the pitch at the end, Ian Madigan (like Iain Henderson and Eoin Reddan) made strong contributions. One of O’Driscoll’s many legacies is that he, O’Connell and four others have helped to ensure Ireland were no one-hit champions and if anyone is going to assume the role of driving Ireland on to further glory, it is Sexton. He has to be the player of the tournament.
Scoring sequence: 2 mins: Machenaud pen 3-0; 15: Machenaud pen 6-0; 21: Sexton try 6-5; 26: Trimble try, Sexton con 6-12; 31: Dulin try, Machenaud con 13-12; (half-time 13-12) 45: Sexton try , con 13-19; 53: Sexton pen 13-22; 63: Szarzewski try, Machenaud con 20-22.
FRANCE: B Dulin; Y Huget, M Bastareaud, G Fickou, M Medard; R Talès, M Machenaud; T Domingo, D Szarzewski, N Mas, P Papé (capt), Y Maestri, L Picamoles, A Lapandry, D Chouly. Replacements: R Slimani for Mas (37 mins), V Debaty for Domingo (half-time), A Flanquart for Maestri (53 mins), S Vahaamahina for Picamoles, W Lauret for Lapandy (both 66 mins), J-M Doussain for Machenaud (67 mins), G Guirado for Szarzewski (69 mins), M Mermoz for Fickou (76 mins).
IRELAND: R Kearney (Leinster); A Trimble (Ulster), B O’Driscoll (Leinster), G D’Arcy (Leinster), D Kearney (Leinster); J Sexton (Racing Metro 92), C Murray (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), M Ross (Leinster), D Toner (Leinster), P O’Connell (Munster, capt), P O’Mahony (Munster), C Henry (Ulster), J Heaslip (Leinster). Replacements: M Moore (Leinster) for Ross, I Henderson (Ulster) for O’Mahony, E Reddan (Leinster) for Murray (all 64 mins), F McFadden (Leinster) for D’Arcy (67 mins), I Madigan (Leinster) for Sexton (69 mins), S Cronin (Leinster) for Best, J McGrath (Leinster) for Healy (both 71 mins). Not used: J Murphy (Leinster).
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)