Gerry Thornley: France may learn it’s a bad week to run into this Ireland team

Despite the defeat to Wales there was much to admire in the Irish performance in Cardiff

Ireland’s James Lowe consoles Billy Burns after his missed penalty kick to touch in the Six Nations game against Wales in Cardiff. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Ireland’s James Lowe consoles Billy Burns after his missed penalty kick to touch in the Six Nations game against Wales in Cardiff. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

At face value, it would appear that next Sunday’s match in the Aviva Stadium is perfectly set-up for France. They flexed their muscles to beat Italy 50-10 in cruise control without suffering any mishaps, and have an eight-day turnaround before facing a beaten and bloodied Ireland, who will now be missing Peter O’Mahony through suspension and have doubts about their captain and their other vice-captain, to name but two.

Regrets? Ireland will have plenty as they began regrouping in their Carton House and HPC bases on Monday, none more so than O’Mahony and Billy Burns. There could be no quibbles with O’Mahony’s red card. The head has to be sacrosanct but as much as any other player he is expected to bring physicality and while his sending off will serve as another warning, unfortunately incidents like that will probably happen again.

O’Mahony had to live with the consequences as he walked off the pitch, sat in the stands for the remainder of the game, in the dressingroom afterwards, on the plane home and back in the team’s hotel bubble, while further contemplating his impending disciplinary hearing this week and likely suspension. That’s a long time in a dark place.

Spiritually, Burns will be his roommate, as he has flashbacks of his missed penalty to touch with the game’s final play, and like O’Mahony, he has been excoriated for that and one ill-advised, overcooked cross kick out on the full as well as one loose pass. Not that there’s any guarantee Ireland would have scored a converted try anyway with 14 against 15 (although by then it should have been 14 v 13 given Nick Tompkins and George North had committed nailed-on yellow card offences.)

People are pissed off and angry in general and understandably so. Sporting failures are an outlet for this, but jeepers we sure like having our scapegoats. O’Mahony let his side down and will know it better than anyone, but his innumerable big plays in repeatedly emptying the tank for Munster, Ireland and the Lions leave him well in credit. He’ll be back too.

As for Burns, well, actually, while he had three bad moments culminating in the high-profile last one, he also had several good ones too in marshalling three Irish attacking sets, running onto the ball hard, taking it to the gainline and, that one pass apart, distributing the ball with variety. So it was that Ireland gamely kept plugging away for effectively 70 minutes with 14 men while keeping their attacking shape and making inroads.

He’s a good player, and presuming he has the support around him and mental strength to recover, then on the presumption that Sexton will start against France, Burns should be on the bench again.

One feared it could be a bad weekend to take on a gnarled and grizzled Welsh side who were backed into a corner. The wily and big-hitting Alun Wyn Jones sparked their best defensive performance in the post-Shaun Edwards era, and there were passages of hard-running, quick recycling rugby that we hadn’t seen in the previous two meetings.

The defeat was also hugely costly. A Grand Slam and a Triple Crown are gone, and a taking a tilt at the title to the last weekend is now half as likely, and hinges on beating France next Sunday.

Accordingly, the odds on Ireland winning the Six Nations have lengthened considerably – from 7-2 third favourites to fifth in the betting at 13-2, with France the new favourites and Scotland second in the betting.

Andrew Porter was one of a number of Ireland players to enjoy big games against Wales on Sunday. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Andrew Porter was one of a number of Ireland players to enjoy big games against Wales on Sunday. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

Yet there were many positive aspects to Ireland’s display. Paul O’Connell’s influence on the lineout and maul was more immediately effective than anyone could have dared hope, and perhaps on the breakdown as well.

The regularity with which one or both of the first two men made effective clearouts was striking, no one more so than Cian Healy – and not just for Tadhg Beirne’s try. The Welsh hardly had a sniff of a turnover, whereas Irish poachers and tacklers wrestled a host of them, along with four lineout steals. The only pity was that so many of them were then undone by handling errors or loose kicks (although Wales’ kicking game was, if anything, even less effective).

Beirne’s performance, and that of Iain Henderson and the rest of the subs, proved Ireland have strength in depth up front. Andrew Porter, CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier and Robbie Henshaw had enormous games.

There was also a calmness and composure, not least from the experienced directors at halfback, in that unanswered 13-point second-quarter response.

The game pivoted on the North try, when Ireland ran scrum ball inside their own 22 and, after good footwork, Garry Ringrose’s attempted offload to Sexton not going to hand. You can’t fault the team’s ambition. There is no right or wrong. If it goes to hand Ireland engineer a daring breakout.

But like the loose kicks and handling errors, they’re fixables. Nor could anyone doubt the team’s spirit and tightness, and they looked like a well coached side.

As for the events in Twickenham, that first round always felt like it might be the best weekend to meet England. They were seriously match shy, especially their core of Saracens players, and were missing some heavyweight honchos up front. Such will be the backlash that next weekend might be the worst time to face them, as Italy are likely to discover. Indeed, Conor O’Shea has probably noted wryly that on the two occasions Ireland beat New Zealand, the Azzurri were next up for the wounded All Blacks a week later.

The results? 68-10 and 66-3.

Yes, it was a draining 86 minutes or so in Cardiff, especially as 70-plus of them were played with 14 men. Physically punishing, the ball in play time was 44.12 minutes, compared to less than 39 minutes in Twickenham and 35 minutes 56 seconds for Les Bleus’ sun-kissed jaunt in Rome.

But at least it’s a seven-day turnaround and as Ronan O’Gara said on Monday, “with the GPSs the players are walking computers”. With well managed workloads, Ireland will turn up primed and ready come 3pm this Sunday.

Hence, just maybe, it might also be a bad week to run into an Irish team fighting for their Championship lives.

PS: Any chance Ireland could be spared Wayne Barnes for a while?

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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