Ireland struggle to match France’s physicality in valiant defeat

Learning to live with the bully boys will be the acid test for Andy Farrell’s side

Glorious defeat is a notion Ireland has a long time left behind. While Andy Farrell and the players rightly point to the good points of what they were able to achieve in Paris, the notion of going to the lion's den and putting on a show but ultimately falling short is no longer an aspiration for this Irish team. You just have to ask the players themselves.

All week in the lead-in to the match against France, Irish players were asked about the power of the French. The physicality and size of their game was seen coming from a long way out.

Andrew Porter was asked on Tuesday what Ireland needed to negate those forces. He said, as normal with French teams, "it starts with the pack. They are a very power-based team with huge forwards."

He was asked if you can get over focused on the forwards and his answer was “you really have to look at yourself and what we can bring”. The name of tighthead prop Uini Atonio was brought up. “It’s been there at the forefront of my mind all week,” said Porter.

The Irish frontrow was not alone in that frame of mind with Porter expressing the views of the team, yet it was the French power that won them the match and that Ireland could not negate or mitigate.

England did something similar to Ireland in 2019 under Joe Schmidt firstly in February and then in a World Cup warm-up match where England won 57-15. But the first half in Stade de France was as clear as any that have come before that size and collision power is problematic for Ireland.

The French were able, by playing hard into Irish faces, keep the team unsettled for the entire first half and go into the break 19-7 ahead. Ireland were being held up at the breakdown, losing collisions to Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand, Atonio, Cameron Woki, Paul Willemse, Francois Cros, Anthony Jelonch and man-of-the-match Gregory Alldritt, who with 30 so far, has had more carries than any player in the competition.

French winger Gabine Villiere and French backrow Gelonch along with Porter have had the most turnovers in the competition.

On the face of it, Ireland losing hooker Rónan Kelleher after 25 minutes would have been seen as a minor disaster at the time but Dan Sheehan was one of the very positive things to emerge from the game.

However, Ireland collectively could not match the French power and size. Mack Hansen’s try was brilliantly opportunistic and caught the French napping. Jamison Gibson-Park’s clever steal in between bodies arrived against a loose French defence. But when France turned up the volume Ireland went backwards.

The home team kicked the ball away throughout the second half because they could. France did not play particularly well then but when it came to bringing up the tempo, even with their bench emptied they were able to bully Ireland.

The disallowed try at the end from French fullback Melvyn Jaminet, again because of some great defensive wrap tackle work from Sheehan, was a case in point. The French brought all their kilos to the table and raised the tempo and aggression because they knew it was available to them. They almost pulled it off.

This is a sore Irish team coming home, thankfully now with a two-week break from competition before their next game against Italy. What Farrell will discuss is obviously the next match but with a long-term view of how to face teams with much more horsepower, especially when those teams know Ireland can be vulnerable if they arrive with weight and size disparities and dynamic players. Weight and size alone doesn’t do it.

Looking towards a World Cup with teams like South Africa and England, when they are on form, bringing a French type of energy to their game remains a concern. How to effectively play against it, as they did for almost an entire first half in Paris, will be a work in progress for Farrell and his players.

Ireland had the right mental attitude and by players’ admissions alone, they knew what they were about to face. But for 40 minutes they struggled to contain a rampaging French team with few answers how to stop it.