France remain on track for a repeat Grand Slam with their hard-fought, close victory over Ireland at a packed Lansdowne Road ground yesterday. Despite Ireland’s three tries to just one by France, one always felt that the visitors had the upper hand and their pressure told as Ireland consistently infringed at the tackle contest. Excellent goal-kicking by Morgan Parra gave France their winning margin. The telling contest of the Championship awaits on 26th of the month, when England ‘welcome’ France at Twickenham.
This was a great rugby match! All of the passion and pride which is contained in the Six Nations Championship was on display for the full 80 minutes. Despite the slight, but consistent, superiority held by the French, for most of the match, the Irish kept coming and the result was in doubt right until the final whistle.
The French established their superiority at the scrum – with Ireland conceding penalties at three scrums – at the lineout – with France winning three of Ireland’s throws, including a ‘match-deciding’ overthrow on the French 5 metre line, in the 74th minute – and in the collisions – with Ireland conceding innumerable knocks-on! For all of this French superiority, Ireland could just have easily have won the match, such was their vision and adventure – backed up, I must say, by an admirable passion and commitment.
The opening minutes were all Ireland’s. Wide attack to both sides was supported by speed to the tackle and powerful, united drive and Jonathan Sexton was the focal point for everything. Two of my personal kpi’s are “how many times did the #10 receive the ball from #9?” and “how many second touches did the #10 get?”In the first seven minutes, Sexton took the ‘second touch’ three times. I could not have asked for more from Ireland and Sexton. They were denied in the second minute when D’Arcy’s pass to Fitzgerald was forward, but were in by the fourth minute from a ‘pick-and-drive’ from Mc Fadden. Super play from a committed team!
Ireland’s intense commitment to deny the French any opportunity was perhaps admirable, but their execution was consistently ill-disciplined and Parra’s kicking soon had the French back in the game at 10-9. After 26 minutes, when O’Callaghan infringed, Parra’s goal gave the lead to the visitors for the first time. France threatened again with a big overlap down the right wing, but Sean O’Brien showed outstanding pace to win the race for the ball, right on the Ireland line. The ‘by now customary’ Ireland resurgence soon had them back in the French quarter and even France’s fantastic defence could not deny Thomas O’Leary’s close-quarter drive. The hosts were back in the lead, 15 points to 10, at the break.
The third quarter belonged to France, and they scored 13 unanswered points. One of the commentary team noted that “France are winning all of the collisions’; this was most significant and caused a number of balls to be lost forward, turning over possession to the eager French counter-attack.
The result looked beyond the hosts, but the team had other ideas. O’Gara had replaced Sexton and he put the ball into the corner. This was the signal for a period of massive Irish pressure, which they maintained for an amazing 25 phases. The French defence was heroic, but the Irish were irresistible for the try in the corner by Jamie Heaslip. O’Gara’s conversion from the right touch gave Ireland a real chance at 22-25, with more than 11 minutes remaining. This was not to be and Ireland made too many errors to be able to maintain the pressure which could easily have told. O’Gara missed touch, as he strived for too much distance from a penalty. Best threw too long on the French 5 metre line. Cronin (I think) knocked on under the French posts and the game ended with another scrum penalty to France.
As was the case last weekend against Scotland, France looked the better side, but were far from dominant on the scoreboard. This is a problem for them. They had the better of the set-pieces, including the restarts; they won the favour of the referee; they were dominants for significant periods ‘in the collisions’; and yet they were outscored to the tune of three tries to one! England seem to produce just the opposite, scoring points from virtually every sniff!
Ireland welcomed back Jamie Heaslip and one can’t help thinking that Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe would have made the difference. Also, they are probably short of one or two international class front-row forwards (they’re not Robinson Crusoe) and perhaps another (taller) lock. Maybe Mick O’Driscoll’s superior size and ball-carry would be an improvement on the industrious Leo Cullen.
Getting your selection spot-on is vital and, indeed, not that straightforward, but, what is much easier, is getting your technique spot-on. Ireland’s ball skills let them down – the body position of the receiver was much too ‘front-on’ – and their support players were frequently too flat – thus placing way too much pressure on the ball-carrier. For all of this, they gave an excellent account of themselves and they can be proud of their efforts.
Full marks to Dave Pearson. He refereed the laws of the game and thus made a significant contribution to a wonderful match.
Back in October, I wrote for The Rugby Paper, that “England could be on the cusp of excellence”. They haven’t disappointed and, although their opponents on Saturday have certainly played better, England produced a performance of real quality. I like to think that I can look beyond the score-board, not matter what the result, and England certainly ‘ticked all of the boxes’ for me, against Italy at Twickenham. Italy looked poor, but good performances can do that to you.
England were strong in the set-pieces, but were dominant at the tackle contests, both with and without the ball. Youngs and Flood were together for most of the match (see my reference to Ireland above) and set the platform for the win. Both #9 and #10 are somewhat restricted positions and the best are capable of underplaying their own game to the benefit of those around them. The very best remain always a threat, but do not always threaten. Welcome Ben Youngs and Toby Flood! Outstanding performances from both. Ashton, Cueto and Banahan were good enough to benefit. Ashton was a deserved man-of-the-match, but I would have given it to Flood. He had the much more difficult role.
I thought that referee Craig Joubert was ordinary – yet again! His continued appointment to big matches remains one of the many mysteries of ‘the referees’ appointments board’.
Wales looked a different side with James Hook at fly-half, as I suggested after last week’s game. His performance allowed the Wales’ attack to consistently threaten the Scots’ defence. Shane Williams, particularly, benefited. It was disappointing for all, that the outstanding Richie Guy missed most of the match with illness, but Scotland played way too deep – one exclamation from (commentator) Jonathan Davies noted, “How deep was that!” You can’t get past the defence without threatening them!