Ireland 19 France 9
This was as tough, exhausting, draining and full-on as we expected, and perhaps, as the rain came in the second half, even more so. At the end of it, Ireland were still standing, literally and physically, atop the Six Nations table, even if it is for less than 24 hours. It was hard-earned, but it was deserved.
As in the war of attrition two years' ago here, which Ireland won 18-11, France made Ireland dig deep. It's usually the case against the French, who were obdurate in the extreme and are clearly on the up. Excepting the 24-9 World Cup win in Cardiff two years ago, and thankfully save for Rob Kearney's apparent thigh or groin injury – nothing like the same carnage, there hadn't been more than a score between the two countries in the last six meetings in the Six Nations.
Put another way, this was actually Ireland’s biggest win in the Championship over France since the 25-6 win in the old Lansdowne Road back in 1975.
There were any amount of huge, selfless contributions, from Seán O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Robbie Henshaw and more besides. Ultimately, Ireland's recycling, discipline and mental strength helped them over the line, and they were steered their by the excellence of Conor Murray, in particular, and the returning Johnny Sexton.
Murray was immense, unrelentingly accurate in all his basics and coming up with a heap of hugely influential moments including, most fittingly, the only try of the game.
Outside him, Sexton played for 68 minutes, and carried for 67 metres, which tells you how much he put his body as well as his astute tactical brain and game into the match.
Ireland got little change out of their maul against the buoyed-up and beefy French pack, and at times their scrum was under pressure too. But they won all 22 of their lineouts, improved their accuracy at the breakdown to eventually recycle more ball and limit the French pilfering there of the first quarter. They also had some nice variations on decoy lone-off runners to vary the point of the attack, and they had over 60 per cent of the possession and, critically, won the penalty count 13-8. The key period was the third quarter, when Sexton’s boot extended a 7-6 interval lead into a 16-6 advantage.
France too came with passion and a plan.
A typically passionate rendition of La Marseillaise courtesy of the estimated 7,000 visiting French prompted even heartier versions of both Ireland’s rugby anthems, and it was clear from the outset that France would happily go hunting the five-metre channels on either touchline.
Within the first six minutes, Louis Picamoles switched inside off his customary station wide on the left, and offloaded back out to Gael Fickou. Camille Lopez then dinked a flat cross kick to centre Rémi Lamerat on the other wing in space, forcing Simon Zebo to stay strong in the tackle.
Ireland had been recycling with a mixture of one-off runners to CJ Stander and co, while also bringing Garry Ringrose's dynamic carrying into play. Both Irish halves also tested the French in the air, Scott Spedding doing enough to deflect the ball back under huge pressure from Henshaw to Murray's box kick, for Yoann Huget to come in behind him and claim the secondary ball.
The French were also fiercely competitive at ruck time, Picamloes reaching out with his bear-like left paw for one fine turnover, from which Noa Nakaitaci freed Fickou out wide, where Heaslip made a fine covering tackle, albeit Keith Earls was penalised for going off his feet.
Sexton, in a rare moment of rustiness, sliced out on the full and when Fickou slipped out of Ringrose's tackle, Baptiste Serin dummied Heaslip off the base and slipped inside him through a hole created by Devin Toner being held off the ball. Heaslip made the covering tackle but went off his feet for Lopez to open the scoring.
When Ireland came calling through about eight phases, the ball squirted out of a ruck and Rabah Slimani, picked for his scrummaging, dived to win the ball on the deck. Spedding's long kick seemed to gather momentum off the turf and in trying to deflect the ball infield, Zebo palmed the ball over touch in goal.
Slimani’s pressure forced Jack McGrath to concede a penalty, and with advantage for offside after opting for a second scrum, Lopez crosskicked to Huget. Ringrose’s tackle dislodged the ball, and Fickou fed Lamerat to loop around for the touchdown, but recourse to the TMO showed Fickou had slightly nudged the ball forward before completing his pick-up.
Although Lopez made it 6-0, Ireland dodged a bullet there.
Ireland couldn’t establish lengthy spells of recycling with which to frustrate the French, and when Lamerat first tackled Stander and then was again strong enough over the ball to reclaim it for a second time, it was Ireland’s third turnover at a ruck in the first 20 minutes.
Ireland were also regularly setting up a few decoy one off runners.
The forward recipient either moved it on or swivelled and transferred out the back to Sexton, but France seemed to read this too, drifting up and out to make their tackles.
Ireland brought their maul into play, winning a penalty off the second and opting for the corner rather than a shot at goal, the ploy backfired when Sébastien Vahaamahina used his reach to knock the ball out of Stander’s grasp after Toner’s take and transfer. Slimani then won another scrum penalty against McGrath.
Ireland had territory and possession, even if France looked comfortable until this juncture, but after another slow start the home side were staying in the moment.
Off a maul, and straight off the training ground, Sexton orchestrated a superbly timed, trademark wrap, the variation being that his pass to Henshaw was moved on to Ringrose for the outhalf to sprint into space. France covered their back field well, especially Huget, who turned to cover Sexton’s perfect chip and deflect the ball back where Nakaitaci, covering across from the other wing, beat Earls to the touchdown.
However, it came at the expense of a five-metre scrum, and it was rock solid too, enabling Henshaw to take Murray's flat pass on the charge and carry hard over the gain line. As critical was the superbly accurate clearout by the first two men – the staple of any Joe Schmidt team – by Ringrose and O'Brien. This was helped by Heaslip hooking Serin off the ball, clearing a path for Murray to pick up and muscle over at the second attempt. Very few scrumhalves would have had the strength to score that try, and Sexton's conversion inched them in front.
The disappointment then was that Ireland didn’t extend their lead by half-time. Sexton tapping a kickable penalty in catching France slightly off guard, before Earls was tackled short of the line, and Ireland then opted for two penalties into the corner as half-time neared.
Up against the clock, this ran the risk of giving France the psychological edge should they hold out, which the influential Vahaamahina, Picamoles and co duly did, and then another 13-phase attack went unrewarded.
Ireland led 7-6 at the break but the game was very much still on.
The second half began with Spedding failing to gather a huge up-and-under from Sexton, whereupon Stander executed a woeful cross kick for Earls, perhaps encouraged by his try-scoring assist in Rome for Craig Gilroy, albeit Ireland had the lineout.
As the rain arrived, later than forecast, so the wind behind France seemed to pick up, Ireland’s maul was again repelled before a turnover when McGrath ran into Heaslip. However, Serin coughed up the cheapest of penalties when tugging Murray off the ball – the gulf in experience showing there – for Sexton to make it 10-6.
Again though, France reclaimed possession from another hanging Lopez restart, only for Nakaitaci to make a mess of his skip pass with the greasy pill, and Murray arrowed a touchfinder off the scrum.
When Earls countered strongly, Sexton and Henshaw brought Zebo into the game, and with a penalty advantage, Sexton landed a towering 45 metre drop goal on the run to make it 13-6.
Ireland lost Kearney turning the screw as the conditions worsened, Sexton went to the skies again and Spedding fumbled the greasy pill again.
Cue the day's clearest rendition yet of The Fields. The psychological energy was all Ireland's now. France having changed their props, Eddy Ben Arous was pinged for scrummaging at an angle of almost 90 degrees, never mind 45. Sexton duly made it 16-6, whereupon Lopez went long from the kick-off only for Murray to thump a 50-metre touch-finder with scarcely believable precision.
A stunning counter-attack, initiated by Sexton running it back and linking with Zebo on the touchline, and continued by the phenomenal Murray, Zebo again and Donnacha Ryan instigated an 18-phase attack – all done with Sexton receiving treatment for a late hit by his one-time Racing team-mate Ben Arous.
Yet when the ball was turned over, Spedding broke out and chipped Zebo, who turned and gathered only for Huget to dislodge the ball. The ball having been in play for over three minutes, to Irish relief Bernard le Roux knocked on again from Serin’s pass.
There simply had to be a time out, as players cramped and sought treatment. As more replacements were made the big screen showed the late, no-arms hit by Ben Arous on Sexton. Hello George Ayoub, the TMO? Anyone home?
Kevin Gourdon then coughed up a cheap penalty when he couldn't resist playing the ball from the wrong side, and Murray's little grubber up the right veered right just an inch or two before the corner flag. He was having one of those days, and shared a joke with Earls.
Then, when France broke out in another lung-bursting passage of play, Spedding looked set to break clear for a try from a Nakaitaci offload only for a try-saving tackle from behind around his ankles by . . . you guessed it . . . Murray.
A neck roll by Uini Atonio on O'Brien relieved the pressure, before an exhausted Tadhg Furlong was pinged for not going through the gate. Cue John Ryan, and Peter O'Mahony for O'Brien as well, for by now the French bench had injected them with energy. They hadn't gone away. Rory Best and Sexton, perhaps making a point of running off to show he was unscathed, soon followed.
Indeed, when Toner conceded a soft penalty for blocking at a ruck, Lopez made it a one-score game, and brought France into bonus-point territory. However, a super chase and pressure off the kick-off by Iain Henderson gave Ireland a welcome footing, and when Picamoles was pinged for a similar offence to Toner, Paddy Jackson made it 19-9.
Ireland could thus afford to even end Murray's superb afternoon, if only two minutes prematurely. French discipline and fitness, if not their defensive work-rate, having dimmed, Kieran Marmion helped Ireland run the clock down in the French 22 before Marmion decided to kick the ball dead.
An odd call, albeit an exhausted Irish set of players wearily shook hands with their shattered looking opponents. Even the crowd’s reception was a little weary. That was tough.
SCORING SEQUENCE – 12 mins Lopez pen 0-3; 19 mins Lopez pen 0-6; 30 mins Murray try, Sexton con 7-6; (half-time 7-6); 46 mins Sexton pen 10-6; 50 mins Sexton drop goal 13-6; 55 mins Sexton pen 16-6; 74 mins Lopez pen 16-9; 74 mins Jackson pen 19-9.
IRELAND: Rob Kearney (Leinster); Keith Earls (Munster), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster), Simon Zebo (Munster); Johnny Sexton (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster); Jack McGrath (Leinster), Rory Best (Ulster, capt); Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); Donnacha Ryan (Munster), Devin Toner (Leinster); CJ Stander (Munster), Seán O'Brien (Leinster), Jamie Heaslip (Leinster).
Replacements: Andrew Trimble (Ulster) for Kearney (51 mins), Cian Healy (Leinster) for McGrath, Iain Henderson (Ulster) for D Ryan (61 mins), Niall Scannell (Munster) for Best, John Ryan (Munster) for Furlong, Peter O’Mahony (Munster) for O’Brien (all 68 mins), Paddy Jackson (Ulster) for Sexton (69 mins), Kieran Marmion (Connacht) for Murray (78 mins).
FRANCE: Scott Spedding (Clermont Auvergne); Yoann Huget (Toulouse), Rémi Lamerat (Clermont Auvergne), Gael Fickou (Toulouse), Noa Nakaitaci (Clermont Auvernge); Camille Lopez (Clermont Auvergne), Baptiste Serin (Bordeaux-Begles); Cyril Baille (Toulouse), Guilhem Guirado (Toulon, capt), Rabah Slimani (Stade Francais); Sébastien Vahaamahina (Clermont Auvergne), Yoann Maestri (Toulouse); Bernard le Roux (Racing 92), Kevin Gourdon (La Rochelle), Louis Picamoles (Northampton).
Replacements: Uini Atonio (La Rochelle) for Slimani, Eddy Ben Arous (Racing 92) for Baille, Julien Devedec (Brive) for Vahaamahina (all 51 mins), Charles Ollivon (Toulon) for le Roux, Henry Chavancy (Racing 92) for Lamerat (both 60 mins), Christopher Tolofua (Toulouse) for Guirado, Maxime Machenaud (Racing 92) for Serin (62 mins), Djibril Camara (Stade Francais) for Spedding (74 mins).
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales).
Assistant referees: Luke Pearce (England), Dan Jones (Wales).
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia).