France 13 Ireland 15
The dust having settled on Ireland’s Houdini-esque feat of escapology in the wet and murky air of Stade de France on Saturday night, there will be an indisputable realisation that it should never have come to that.
Like a boxer who has opponents up against the ropes for the majority of the fight, they became a little wayward in looking for the decisive blow, were caught out by a sucker punch and wobbled precariously, before regathering their composure and holding their nerve with what amounted to a last-round barrage and a narrow two-point win.
In last Saturday's interview in The Irish Times, Joe Schmidt had ventured that his famed Monday morning reviews are not as harsh as has been made out, yet there will surely be plenty of critical analysis into this performance.
For sure there was an honesty of effort and commendable work rate right from the off. No one shirked their responsibilities at the breakdown and CJ Stander, Bundee Aki, James Ryan, Cian Healy and Iain Henderson (who made over 80 carries between them) kept showing up for the ball. Ryan's selection was more than vindicated by the quality of his tackling and carrying, and in tandem with the in-form Henderson, helped give the Irish pack the mobility and dynamism that was required for this slugfest.
But the Irish carries were increasingly energy sapping into blue traffic, as the spirited French kept making their tackles, and Ireland will need to improve the quality of their work in contact and in clearing out to generate the kind of quick ball they need. Even then, the quality of their handling deteriorated as the game progressed, and the errors also mounted.
Well though Rob Kearney played in the air again, Geoffrey Palis and co also defended the high ball very well, and the Irish maul could make no headway, thus ensuring that it was hard yakka from beginning to the dramatic end.
In particular, though, the manner in which Teddy Thomas was permitted to take a return pass from Antoine Dupont from his own quick throw and score from halfway virtually untouched clearly vexed Schmidt, not least as the winger's threat from such a position would have been highlighted. It seemed pointed that Jacob Stockdale was taken off soon after to be replaced by Fergus McFadden.
Allowing for the wet and slippery conditions, and the manner in which Nigel Owens allowed the breakdown to become something of a free-for-all, one would expect Ireland to make better use of a 68 per cent return in both possession and territory.
Ireland had some success in finding space out wide from off the top lineouts, but ultimately France made the game’s only two line breaks, and Ireland managed five offloads to France’s three, which illustrated how restricted both team’s attacking play became with so much slow, and wet, ruck ball.
Two key moments were sacrificed at times when Ireland were on the verge of delivering decisive blows, namely when Johnny Sexton missed a penalty to make it 15-6 and a two-score game, and when Tadhg Furlong had the ball ripped from him by Jefferson Poirot as Ireland inched toward the French line through 15 phases.
Schmidt believes Ireland will improve. “We would certainly like to. As I said the surface was unbelievable today. They have certainly improved the surface here. It was magnificent but sometimes when the surface is really good and the grass gets wet, it becomes a bit slippy, it becomes ‘glisson’, kinda like icy and we saw those two knee injuries with [Antoine] Dupoint and Josh [van der Flier].
“They weren’t actually hit by anyone – they fell over. Their knee kinda collapsed when they stepped and they fell over; both of them, their right foot fell from under them. So conditions were not as we would have liked but you are going to get that at times and so you have to adapt and cope with that and I felt we did in every way other than accumulating the points.
“If we had gone 15-6, that’s a crucial time when they are forced to maybe play a little bit more and we might profit from that and we work hard in defence, or they maybe start to feel they are out of the game and we can finish over the top of them. But the way that they got back into the game meant it was us that was scrambling in the end.”
Owens said he was informed by the independent match doctor that Dupont had gone off for an HIA, when it looked to be a knee injury, thus permitting Maxime Machenaud to return to the field, when questioned about this by Sexton, who had taken over the captaincy, and pretty much the on-field coaching and direction of the Irish team, after Sean Cronin had replaced Rory Best.
France have previous cases like this, notably at home to Wales last year. It looked to be a tactical manipulation of the HIA protocols, and the Six Nations on Sunday released a statement which said: "The HIA review processor is reviewing a number of incidents from the France v Ireland match in the senior men's championship. Depending on their findings, SNRL will be considering the next steps in respect of those incidents."
When asked about this, Schmidt said: “I’m not a medical expert so I am going to leave the medical fraternity to work their way though that one. Certainly mechanism of injury is something we look at and we look at replays and people will make up their own minds up about that.”
Scoring sequence: 3 mins – Sexton pen 0-3; 22 mins – Sexton 0-6; 36 mins – Machenaud pen 3-6; 39 mins – Sexton pen 3-9; (half-time 3-9); 47 mins – Sexton pen 3-12; 54 mins – Machenaud pen 6-12; 74 mins – Thomas try, Belleau con 13-12; 83 mins – Sexton drop goal 13-15.
France: Geoffrey Palis (Castres); Teddy Thomas (Racing 92), Rémi Lamerat (Clermont Auvergne), Henry Chavancy (Racing 92), Virimi Vakatawa (Racing 92); Matthieu Jalibert (Bordeaux-Bègles), Maxime Machenaud (Racing 92); Jefferson Poirot (Bordeaux-Bègles), Guilhem Guirado (Toulon) (capt), Rabah Slimani (Clermont Auvergne), Sébastien Vahaamahina (Clermont Auvergne), Arthur Iturria (Clermont Auvergne), Wenceslas Lauret (Racing 92), Yacouba Camara (Montpellier), Kévin Gourdon (La Rochelle).
Replacements: Anthony Belleau (Toulon) for Jalibert (30 mins), Dany Priso (La Rochelle) for Poirot, Cedate Gomes Sa (Racing 92) for Slimani (55 mins), Paul Gabrillagues (La Rochelle) for Iturria (61 mins), Marco Tauleigne (Bordeaux-Bègles) for Lauret, Antoine Dupont (Toulouse) for Machenaud (both 66 mins), Adrien Pelissié (Bordeaux-Bègles) for Guirado (74 mins), Machenaud for Dupont (76 mins). Not used: Benjamin Fall (Montpellier).
Ireland: Rob Kearney (UCD/Leinster); Keith Earls (Young Munster/Munster), Robbie Henshaw (Buccaneers/Leinster), Bundee Aki (Galwegians/Connacht), Jacob Stockdale (Ballynahinch/Ulster); Jonathan Sexton (St. Mary's College/Leinster), Conor Murray (Garryowen/Munster); Cian Healy (Clontarf/Leinster), Rory Best (Banbridge/Ulster) (capt), Tadhg Furlong (Clontarf/Leinster), Iain Henderson (Ballynahinch/Ulster), James Ryan (UCD/Leinster), Peter O'Mahony (Cork Constitution/Munster), Josh van der Flier (UCD/Leinster), CJ Stander (Shannon/Munster).
Replacements: Dan Leavy (UCD/Leinster) for van der Flier (37 mins), Jack McGrath (St. Mary's College/Leinster) for Healy (61 mins), Sean Cronin (St. Mary's College/Leinster) for Best (68 mins), Devin Toner (Lansdowne/Leinster) for James Ryan (both 68 mins), John Ryan (Cork Constitution/Munster) for Furlong (70 mins), Fergus McFadden (Old Belvedere/Leinster) for Stockdale (75 mins). Not used: Luke McGrath (UCD/Leinster), Joey Carbery (Clontarf/Leinster),
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)