Irish breakdown play proved cornerstone of epic victory
Old warriors to the fore as dominance at scrum proves profitable platform for epic triumph
Winger Andrew Trimble crosses to score Ireland’s second try during their Six Nations victory at the Stade de France, Paris, France, on Saturday evening. Photograph: PA
Success is failure turned inside out, with France’s sublime final attacking flurry worthy of winning any match. But the hunger in Ireland’s defence would not quit. What a way for it all to end. And what made it even more special was France played brilliant, controlled and at times majestic rugby, and still Ireland won.
France played huge tracts of the Six Nations in their own half, but clearly last Saturday they had a precise exit strategy. Their half-backs, especially Maxime Machenaud, got the ball beyond their half. Then they sparked. Their first lineout was off the top, with monster Mathieu Bastareaud slicing through our midfield. Their second, deep in their own half, was shortened to five men, mauled and then box-kicked; much more measured, calmer and effective.
Beyond that, France played off narrow targets with plenty of rewinds and upped the pace significantly as they exited their own half. They desperately tried to keep the ball off the deck, constantly looking for offloads. When this occurred they were mesmeric.
But the Irish defence got them to deck and Ireland’s breakdown play was the winning of the game. It consistently slowed the French flow, where the Irish fringe and backline defence remained a powerful unit. Off the deck was a different matter, highlighted by Murray’s long box-kick on 58 minutes that sent the French into free flow.
On Friday I reflected on the Dimitri Szarzewski effect for France and boy did he deliver (as did Rory Best). The French lineout was transformed and gave them huge momentum and choice of play.
But once again the Irish scrum was hugely profitable. Firstly all the resets in the opening flurry took the pace out of the French attack. The second scrum penalty was deep inside our half, allowing Johnny Sexton to go down the line. Eleven phases later Chris Henry’s magic offload to Sexton made Ireland’s opening score. Five minutes later Louis Picamoles dropped a simple ball and from the ensuing scrum O’Driscoll played a beautiful show-and-go through outhalf Remi Tales.
Three key events then played out. First was O’Driscoll’s ball placement, perfect even down to his left-hand release as Conor Murray arrived. It required only a one-man clear- out from Sexton and opened a gate for Murray. Two seconds was all it took. Second, as highlighted on Friday, the French don’t push up on both sides in defence. They tend to focus on the open side. Murray picked off O’Driscoll and headed against the grain, where France were all at sea. For all three Irish tries France failed to push up in defence.