After lacklustre Six Nations start, Ireland are back on track

Ireland take on a Grand Slam-seeking Wales still in the mix and feeling better about chances

Gerry Thornley and Liam Toland reflect on Ireland’s 26-14 win over France, which keeps Joe Schmidt’s side in the title race going into the final week of the 2019 Six Nations. Video: David Dunne

 

Crisis, what crisis? Ireland may not ultimately retain their Guinness Six Nations title, but they found much of what they were looking for in Sunday’s bonus-point 26-14 win over France at the Aviva Stadium.

They go to the Principality Stadium next Saturday to face Grand Slam seeking Wales on the back of their record 13-game winning run still in the mix and feeling better about themselves.

Admittedly, Ireland remain the outsiders of the three sides still in contention, and at least the irritating concession of two converted tries in the game’s last throes will not have a material effect on the final table. With England enjoying a vastly superior points’ difference, Ireland were never going to retain the title by that means anyway.

This commanding five-point haul moved Ireland to within two points of Wales and one of England and Ireland can overtake Wales by beating them next Saturday in Cardiff (kick-off 2.45pm). However, realistically, to also overtake England they would need Scotland to beat them in the day’s final game at Twickenham (kick-off 5pm).

Afterwards, Joe Schmidt could not conceal his satisfaction.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen, in the last six years a team control 40 minutes like we did that first half,” he said of Ireland’s first 40 minutes, at the end of which their 19-0 lead through tries by Rory Best, Johnny Sexton and Jack Conan hardly flattered them.

“I think the French got knocked back early and it was hard for them to then get back on the front foot. But part of their hardship was that we kept that pressure on. To keep that pressure on for the full 40 minutes spoke volumes for the intensity and about the energy that we brought to our game. And also the cohesion.”

Best’s try came in the third minute off a line-out maul. Ireland had a near unblemished return save for one over throw from their 18 line-outs and putting points on the board early on was important.

“Yeah, it’s always important to do that because you need the points where we are. But you’re right, we need the confidence as well. We need to get back on the front foot. In six days time it becomes a whole different equation. Wales in Cardiff is always a complicated fixture for us,” said Schmidt of a venue where Ireland have lost both of their previous visits under his watch in the Six Nations.

In an overall context, Schmidt agreed it was a significant performance after three scratchy displays previously.

“I know there’s been some frustration externally and it has been internal as well. We’ve been frustrated that we haven’t been as cohesive as we’d have liked . . . I’m sure the Welsh boys were sitting back, recovered, had their feet up today, watching. They’ll be primed, very much primed for us next week.”

The only injury concern arising from the game was Josh van der Flier, who twisted his knee “awkwardly” according to Schmidt. “We’ll know more about that in the next couple of days. But we wanted to get him off just knowing what we’ve got coming with the have a six-day turnaround.”

The Irish head coach expected Rob Kearney, ruled out with a calf strain and replaced by Jordan Larmour, to be training by Tuesday. And he is likely to be recalled.

Robbie Henshaw would be less of a chance,” said Schmidt of Henshaw’s leg injury. “Robbie is recovering but it’s slower than expected.”

This was Schmidt’s last home game in the Six Nations and also Best’s. Reflecting on his 63rd Six Nations game (he’s only missed two in 13 seasons) and last at home, Best said: “It’s strange to think this is the last time you hop on a team bus to go to a Six Nations game here.

“I think in terms of the result and the performance it’s exactly how you’d plan your home game here. That’s how you’d want it, the intensity that we played with, especially in the first half.

“I was delighted to be a part of that and like we said . . . it was mainly Joe. He got very emotional and made it clear I wasn’t allowed to keep going after he left,” quipped the Irish captain.

“It is what it is.”

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