Tight margins as fired-up France withstand plucky Ireland performance

Battling second-half comeback comes up just short in Stade de France cauldron

France 30 Ireland 24

The bottom line is that Ireland lost after earning themselves the chance of a famous win. The 2022 Guinness Six Nations now looks like France's to lose, with every incentive to complete the Grand Chelem when Les Rosbifs are served up on the final Saturday night.

For much of the first period on a crisp Parisian winter’s day it looked like Ireland’s intricate passing game couldn’t live with the line speed and physicality of the French defence.

Ireland cracked a little under pressure. One-off runners were ensnared and driven backwards. They were forced to kick a little more, and there were more of what seemed like unforced errors, but away from home against this fine French side in this fired-up mood, these things are relative.

Silencing the crowd ought to have been a prime Irish goal, but France caught Ireland a little cold with a quick throw from Jamison Gibson-Park's first exit. The straight carries from their big men, which were a hallmark of the first half, led to Romain Ntamack providing the French X-factor when offloading inside to Antoine Dupont, although it looked clearly forward.

Thereafter France spent much of the first half on the front foot. Aware this could have been a title decider in disguise, the Stade de France was a true cauldron, putting the Aviva a week ago to shame.

Only Ireland’s daring double-try salvo briefly becalmed them, before the crowd implored the home team back into life in their moment of need with a rousing chorus of Allez les Bleus and then a rendition of Les Marseillaise prior to Cyril Baille’s key 54th-minute try.

Before then, when Melvyn Jaminet’s fifth penalty made it 22-7, things looked grim for Ireland. They’d had their moments, but only Mack Hansen’s opportunistic restart regather on the run above a static Jaminet had kept Ireland afloat.

But even with a 6-2 split, that manic intensity was always going to be difficult for France to maintain. Given lift-off by Andrew Porter's strength in the jackal, James Ryan opting for the corner and Josh van der Flier's 45th-minute try, Ireland began making their passes, asking questions, finding gaps or half-gaps, and getting to the edges.

Ultimately, many of the game’s statistics panned out very evenly – be it possession, territory, carries (98-101), metres gained (558-613 in Ireland’s favour), line breaks (three apiece), offloads (8-7) and so on.

Against that, France imposed themselves physically on Ireland and, in the first half especially, negated Ireland’s two primary strengths and life bloods, the lineout and the breakdown.

Clean ball

Although the official stats suggested Ireland lost only two of their own throws, Ireland's lack of clean ball went deeper than that, witness the tap down under pressure by Caelan Doris which Jack Conan had to tidy up. Rónan Kelleher couldn't shift the immovable Paul Willemse in the jackal and cue another three points for Jaminet.

As feared, Shaun Edwards’s defence also appeared to have neutralised Ireland’s attack. Helped by their physicality in the collisions, France picked their moments to contest for the ball or counter-ruck, which accounted for much of Ireland’s 13 turnovers

Although the penalty count was eventually 10-7 to France, by early in the second half it had been a damaging 8-3, with five of them being within Jaminet’s metronomic range.

Ireland and Joe Schmidt have had issues with referee Angus Gardner in the past, notably at the last World Cup. As feared and expected, in these pages anyway, perhaps partly as a consequence of not being penalised for the first 54 minutes by Jaco Peyper a week previously, Ireland came out the worst in Gardner's penalty count.

It would be no surprise if the Welsh post-match referees’ report, World Rugby’s response and/or the French management highlighted certain instances where Ireland ought theoretically to have conceded penalties before the 54th minute.

That he was a referee’s assistant in Dublin only accentuated all of this and it certainly appeared as if Gardner was keeping a particularly close eye on Porter’s scrummaging technique.

As well as a couple of debatable penalties against him, one of which led to another Jaminet three-pointer with the last kick of the first half to make it 19-7 at the interval, there was a nonsense penalty against Andrew Conway for what was a legal aerial challenge.

Worst of all was the bizarre decision to decree Ireland's penalty advantage inside halfway on the hour had been used up by Gibson-Park's grubber after good link play by Garry Ringrose. About 99 times out of 100, that's a kick to nothing. If not, then all crosskicks with house money would henceforth also mean the penalty was used up. A terrible decision. As for the offside line, it seemed not to exist.

The corner

Johnny Sexton may well have gone to the corner in that fateful 72nd minute, but it's doubtful even his presence could have altered the flow in the first half. Through it all, Joey Carbery stayed composed, landed all his kicks and kept looking to play flat to the line and pull the strings.

That Porter and Tadhg Furlong put in 72-minute shifts says plenty about their performances. Dan Sheehan looked made for Test rugby in the biggest game of his career. Tadhg Beirne led the carry and tackle counts. The backrow was a little overpowered, but Doris had a big game too.

Largely confined to maintaining the tempo for two games, Gibson-Park picked his moment for a rare break to claim his try. Ringrose maintained his fine form, Hansen grew more into the game and although Hugo Keenan kicked the ball dead from distance as he did against Wales, he outperformed Jaminet, who was cleverly targeted.

Ultimately, too, Ireland outscored France by three tries to two. Maybe you had to be there to appreciate this felt like the two best sides in the Six Nations going toe-to-toe, flaws and all. This was a hugely creditable Irish performance. Loads of 'learnings' too.

SCORING SEQUENCE – 2 mins: Dupont try, Jaminet con 7-0; 6: Jaminet pen 10-0; 7: Hansen try, Carbery con 10-7; 17: Jaminet pen 13-7; 36: Jaminet pen 16-7; 40: Jaminet pen 19-7; (half-time 19-7); 43: Jaminet pen 22-7; 45: Van der Flier try, Carbery con 22-14; 50: Gibson-Park try, Carbery con 22-21; 54: Baille try 27-21; 72: Carbery pen 27-24; 79: Jaminet pen 30-24.

FRANCE: Melvyn Jaminet; Damian Penaud, Gael Fickou, Yoram Moefana, Gabin Villière; Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont (capt); Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand, Uini Atonio; Cameron Woki, Paul Willemse; Francois Cros, Anthony Jelonch, Gregory Alldritt.

Replacements: Romain Taofifuena for Woki, Thibaud Flament for Willemse (both 54 mins), Peato Mauvaka for Marchand, Jean-Baptiste Gros for Baille, Demba Bamba for Atonio (all 55), Maxime Lucu for Dupont (70), Dylan Cretin for Cros (73). Not used: Thomas Ramos.

IRELAND: Hugo Keenan (Leinster); Andrew Conway (Munster), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Bundee Aki (Connacht), Mack Hansen (Connacht); Joey Carbery (Munster), Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster); Andrew Porter (Leinster), Rónan Kelleher (Leinster), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); Tadhg Beirne (Munster), James Ryan (Leinster, capt); Caelan Doris (Leinster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Jack Conan (Leinster).

Replacements: Dan Sheehan (Leinster) for Kelleher (26 mins), Peter O'Mahony (Munster) for Conan (53), Iain Henderson (Ulster) for O'Mahony (59), Conor Murray (Munster) for Gibson-Park, Robbie Henshaw (Leinster) for Aki (both 64), Cian Healy (Leinster) for Porter, Finlay Bealham (Connacht) for Furlong (both 73), Jack Carty (Connacht) for Carbery (79 mins).

Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia).