Ireland huff and puff but it’s not enough as France win

Rónan Kelleher’s try gave home side hope but any title hopes are now dead in the water

Ireland 13 France 15

Ireland’s determination and resilience couldn’t be faulted. They withstood all manner of upheaval before and during this game and on many occasions again looked a well-coached side, but ultimately France had them at arm’s length to deservedly win at the Aviva for the first time in a decade.

In the quality of the set-pieces there was much to admire, and from 15-3 down and seemingly a beaten docket, Ireland rode their luck to take the result deep into overtime. They could also reflect ruefully on a few key moments that went against them, not least James Lowe coming within a whisker of scoring the game’s first try.

The rejuvenated French had more powerful ball carriers and, it has to be said, a much more refined offloading game, both in the way their used their footwork and the anticipation of teammates - probably honed since their formative years.

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By comparison, and partly as a result, Ireland couldn’t up the tempo in the manner France could and in truth they lost the kicking duel in the second-half when also falling off too many tackles.

Contrary to the weather forecast, the morning torrent of rain and wind relented before kick-off and the air was so heavy that it’s doubtful conditions would have been any better in the south of France.

La Marseillaise was never meant to be played to a silent backdrop and in normal times the feverish sense of anticipation would have been compounded by Iain Henderson, in his first act as captain, charging down Brice Dulin’s first clearance from the kick-off.

The ball, luckily for France, ricocheted into the arms of Gabin Villiere. Against that, soon after when Jamison Gibson-Park went blind, Villiere knocked on his attempted intercept when he would have had a clear run to the line.

Ireland controlled the territorial battle for much of the first quarter through the clever and varied tactical kicking of Gibson-Park and Billy Burns, as well as  Lowe’s long-distance wiper kicks and the chasing of Keith Earls and Hugo Keenan.

That said, Ireland perhaps overdid the up-and-unders and another feature of the game was how composed France were, especially Dulin, in the air and in exiting.

It also helped that Ireland nicked the first two French throws and forced a turnover at the fourth but they looked more dangerous when keeping the ball in hand, again maintaining a good shape and finding the edges, although France’s defence was fierce.

Burns, whose general play was good, missed a kickable penalty but this was after Matthieu Jalibert did likewise, and soon after his miss Burns did open the scoring following good footwork by Earls on the right wing and a nice line by Keenan from which Bernard Le Roux went off his feet.

When Le Roux was binned for tripping Earls as he chased another pinpoint box kick by Gibson-Park, Ireland worked a strike play off the ensuing lineout, bunching the French midfield with decoy runs as Gibson-Park hit Robbie Henshaw up the middle and Burns, on the wrap, found Hugo Keenan in space.

The latter’s pass looked a touch too early, giving Dulin a chance to make his tackle, although it needed an additional hit from Gael Fickou. Initially, indeed, the officials awarded the try but the replays showed Fickou had done enough to drag Lowe’s right toe into the edge of the touchline. This wasn’t a case of inches, or even an inch. It was less than that.

Almost immediately France struck after defending another aerial assault for Dulin to find grass way downfield and force a lineout 40 metres out.

This time Ireland didn’t contest. Jalibert was the creator-in-chief with deft footwork and an offload inside to Julien Marchand, who popped the ball up for Antoine Dupont and he floated a long pass wide to Damian Penaud.

From the recycle on the right, they swiftly went wide left, Jalibert’s bounce pass hitting Fickou and, as Gibson-Park came in off the wing when he perhaps didn’t need to, the offload released captain Charles Ollivon for the try.

Jalibert converted and after, another bout of dangerous offloading from their big men, made it 10-3 at half-time after Cian Healy chose “the wrong way” to exit a ruck in the view of referee Luke Pearce.

Ireland were given an almighty reprieve on the resumption when Marchand busted Rob Herring’s tackle and was hauled down by Lowe. From the recycle, Dupont’s attempted skip pass cannoned off the head of Paul Willemse.

Not that the home side were feeling too lucky. Burns then limped off before a bloodied Healy and Henderson clashed heads in tackling the ever-prominent Gregory Alldritt, both departing for HIAs.

Ireland were still alive, Josh van der Flier coming up with a couple of big plays but he and Gibson-Park accidentally turned over the ball at the base and Lowe’s knock-on when covering a high ball gave France an attacking scrum.

Fickou trucked it up to launch the play and with quick ball and a penalty advantage, Jalibert switched play with a long pass to Dulin. As Lowe came in off his wing to no effect once more Dulin offloaded for Penaud to finish in the corner.

Out of nothing, Ireland were handed a lifeline. Ollivon beat Ultan Dillane to Rónan Kelleher’s throw at the front, but Kelleher sharply latched onto the ball and demonstrated both his pace and strength with a fine touchline finish.

When Ross Byrne was tackled high by Willemse he left Henderson, now back to reassume the captaincy from CJ Stander, in no doubt he’d take on the 45 metre shot at goal and he nailed it.

Even so, Ireland were hanging on for dear life after Jalibert hit the post with a 45 metre penalty, and Will Connors was sharp off the back of an ominous French scrum to spoil Dupont. Living off scraps, the excellent Gibson-Park and Lowe nearly worked a Kiwi-esque break-out.

There was one last attack going into overtime but, although brave to the end, there was to be no repeat of Paris in 2018.

Scoring sequence: 21 mins Burns pen 3-0; 29 mins Ollivon try, Jalibert con 3-7; 38 mins Jalibert pen 3-10; (half-time 3-10); 56 mins Penaud try 3-15; 57 mins Kelleher try, Byrne con 10-15; 65 mins Byrne pen 13-15.

IRELAND: Hugo Keenan; Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Billy Burns, Jamison Gibson-Park; Cian Healy, Rob Herring, Andrew Porter; Tadhg Beirne, Iain Henderson(capt); Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier, CJ Stander. Replacements: Ross Byrne for Burns, Ed Byrne for Healy (43-57 and 69 mins), Ultan Dillane for Henderson (43-59 mins) and for Beirne (73 mins), Tadhg Furlong for Porter (53 mins), Rónan Kelleher for Herring (56 mins), Will Connors for van der Flier (65 mins), Jordan Larmour for Earls (68 mins). Not used: Craig Casey.

FRANCE: Brice Dulin; Damian Penaud, Arthur Vincent, Gaël Fickou, Gabin Villiere; Matthieu Jalibert, Antoine Dupont; Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand, Mohamed Haouas; Bernard le Roux, Paul Willemse; Anthony Jelonch, Charles Ollivon (capt), Gregory Alldritt. Replacements: Uini Atonio for Haouas (56 mins), Dylan Cretin for Jelonch, Teddy Thomas for Penaud (both 67 mins), Romain Taofifenua for Willemse (70 mins), Pierre Bourgarit for Marchand, Hassane Kolingar for Baille (both 76 mins). Not used: Baptiste Serin, Anthony Bouthier.

Sinbinned: Le Roux (24-34 mins).

Referee: Luke Pearce (England).