Ireland are learning but France show that there’s a way to go
This is a French team with all-conquering ambitions for 2023 and they showed it
Ireland’s Rhys Ruddock is dejected while Brice Dulin of France celebrates at the final whistle of the Six Nations match. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
A seven day journey that went down a number of injury side roads rarely felt much better than a tumbrel ride to meeting France in the Aviva Stadium on Sunday.
Ireland, shorn of their two most influential backs, captain Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray, and a lock with the potential to become world class, James Ryan, against a French team with a one-eyed zeal to beat the world in Paris in a few years’ time.
A glimpse of the future then without Sexton and Murray. It wasn’t so dystopian. Or was it, as the first time Ireland have lost their two opening games?
“Not taking the opportunities obviously,” said Farrell afterwards was his disappointment. “It was going into a blue wall in those last two minutes. Our game management needs to be addressed.”
In the end it was less of a swashbuckling France and more the dog. France didn’t care. It was a 13-15 win to the backdrop of them not having won in Dublin since 2011, fullback Brice Dulin’s tears of relief at the end testimony to the value his team had put on victory.
Throughout, Farrell’s game face was good. “We’ve got to take our game to them,” the coach had said before the match. Nobody really believed Ireland could do that against a powerful and creative, sometimes idiosyncratic, team seeking their second win of the championship.
But the home side came close and for most of the match forced France to play a hardnosed, resolute type of contest – the Shaun Edwards stamp on the French defence perhaps a defining difference between the teams.
Just seconds into the match and Iain Henderson’s first touch blocked down a clearance in the French 22. Moments later Billy Burns first kick, a hail Mary moment, sweetly found touch. Then Matthieu Jalibert poked his easy kick wide. Seven from seven last week for the French outhalf and now the skies around Lansdowne Road began to brighten.
From there the first half of driving forward was largely green-tinted, a high kicking game with James Lowe, Hugo Keenan, Burns and James Gibson-Park providing the ordinance, Dulin comfortably plucking the ball from the sky like St Valentine’s Day bonbons.
It was a confident, upbeat Irish effort and maybe sometimes misdirected, the French lineout in tatters, the play all in the French half, Ireland grunting and panting and in earnest moving the ball forwards. But then, the French are as the French do and, down to 14 men after a trip on Keith Earls, they broke as if the barn door had been left ajar to stampede forwards.
Was it their first attack on 29 minutes just after James Lowe was over with a toe trailing into touch? At the end of the charge was their smiling captain Charles Ollivon. It appeared in real time that the French ran and offloaded and off loaded and supported and ran and supported and off loaded and scored, scrumhalf Antoine Dupont involved three times.
Jalibert converted for 3-7 and kicked a penalty for 3-10. At half time it was Ireland that had orchestrated most of the first half play but had fallen into a chasing game.
Calamity comes in different ways and 90 seconds after the break Cian Healy’s head clashed with Henderson and Burns was also hauled ashore with a head injury. Three HIAs, this week’s overriding theme, claiming more Irish players as France ferociously met the challenge.
But passive aggressive does not do in rugby and Lowe’s effort on Dulin driving forward was soft deep in the second half. From that, Damian Penaud dotted for 3-15 before Farrell’s belief in making your own luck bore fruit. A wonky bounce at a lineout and Rónan Kelleher did exactly that to go over.
At 10-15 Ross Byrne made it 13-15 guaranteeing a nervy, scrappy end for both sides and a next score wins match. Again. But Ireland went backwards when they needed forwards ball and couldn’t set up a drop goal jackpot climax.
“People wrote us off saying we’d no chance. We’re gutted,” added Farrell. “We were in there to the death against one of the best sides in the world. But getting over the line is the key.”
A turnover. An anti-climax end. Learning, yes. But the team may find that people want more.