Gerry Thornley: Ireland see title slip from grasp after Paris defeat

Joe Schmidt unable to hide anger as France turn game around in second half

Joe Schmidt has only presided over three defeats in a dozen Six Nations games, each by margins of three, seven and one, in Twickenhan, Cardiff and Paris.

Each hurt in different ways and could in part be attributable to forces beyond even his control, but Saturday’s 10-9 defeat to a limited French side seemingly left him feeling angrier and perhaps more powerless than either of the previous two.

Following on from last week's draw against Wales, he was left to concede, a little bitterly, that the Six Nations title had been wrenched from Ireland's grasp.

“To be honest, we’re a week-to-week team and the titles that we’ve won in the last two years have never been discussion points. The next game has been the discussion point,” he maintained, before admitting: “There’s no hiding our disappointment. Mathematically there’s an outside chance but realistically we know it’s a very, very outside chance.


“For us, it will be build towards Twickenham and put together the best performance we can over there. The first thing is to get the medical assessment and put together the players who are ready to go.”

The IRFU are expected to provide a medical bulletin around lunchtime today. Dave Kearney and Seán O'Brien are the biggest concerns.

The unfortunate Kearney suffered an A/C (shoulder) injury which Schmidt forecast could “keep him out for some time”, and while there was relief that O’Brien had aggravated his hamstring problem rather than sustain a knee injury, it’s unlikely that he will feature against England.

Mike McCarthy will also have to recover from suspected concussion, although at least he has two weeks to do so, a time span which should also be welcomed by Johnny Sexton, whose latest unspecified injury to perhaps his sternum or neck area was, according to Schmidt, the product of "a culmination of blows".

Against that, in addition to the anticipated return of Simon Zebo and Keith Earls, of some consolation is the prospect of both Cian Healy and Mike Ross being back in the mix after they returned to action in Leinster's 52-0 win over Zebre; their absence has been acutely felt in the Six Nations.

“I chatted with both of them during the week and we made the decision that it was best for them to stay where they were and get a game under their belt,” said Schmidt. “They’ve never been far from the mix but you just don’t bring people into Test rugby if they’re not fully fit or very close to it.”

Schmidt and Rory Best both expressed their frustration with the manner Eddy Ben Arous especially and Rabah Slimani were, in their view, allowed to scrum at an angle and illegally, while maintaining that Ireland sought to stay "square" at scrum time.

The Irish coach has previously noted how a like-minded English scrum has also tried to stay within the boundaries of the law; albeit that was of scant consolation in the aftermath of this defeat. “Yeah, I think they’re two teams that know each other very well, but it’s one of those things that’s still a wee way off for us, to be honest.

“I haven’t got my head around too much of what we’ll be looking to do against England, we’ll use the next couple of days to assess who we’ve got fully fit.

“The one thing I can’t fault the players for is their attitude and their effort and we have just got to keep trying with that. If it does mean new guys come in, they’ll come in with the right attitude and effort.”

Schmidt also revealed Jared Payne had played at least the final half-hour with a dead leg. "I thought his performance was outstanding in that context."

Payne carried strongly and marshalled the Irish defence valiantly and cleverly, making some superb reads and making 16 tackles, second only to Tommy O’Donnell’s remarkable tally of 20.

Ireland, who could easily be on four points, stand fourth on one point. A remodelled, younger, inexperienced French side have, like England, a maximum return of four points when they might easily have had none.

The debate rages as to what extent they were there for the taking, but Schmidt maintained that “I think they’ve got some really good individuals”. The implication being that they have more individual threats than was the case under the previous French regime.

That said, Schmidt added: “They really won the game on the back of their scrum. The risk for them is that if that’s more closely looked at, that might not deliver the result the next time.”

But citing one break-out from deep off an Irish turnover which almost saw Virimi Vakatawa go the length of the pitch, Schmidt said: “They have the potential to score at almost every moment, and that’s always a danger, particularly when they have that across the park; it’s not just one player.”

Guy Novés has invested in youth and flair, has given them more freedom, and the likes of Sébastien Bézy and Jules Plisson will assuredly have developed more confidence on this stage for these back-to-back wins.

They also have momentum, whereas Ireland have to start again and salvage something from a campaign which has assuredly seen them lose their grip on the title.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times