Ireland are down and out in Paris with London looming
RBS Six Nations: France 10 Ireland 9
PERHAPS the most sobering thing of all is that France were far from great.
But in all but ending Ireland’s hopes of a third straight Six Nations title, they proved they still retain some of their old characteristics - not least, the ability to feast upon momentum.
Ireland gave it to them in the second-half by virtue of a litany of errors. It allowed the blue shirts to roll into the Irish half, where they stayed for almost all of the last half hour. It appeared the pressure would tell in the form of a whistle from referee Jaco Peyper. Another referee might have lost patience with the visitors’ creaking scrum a lot sooner.
Three penalties beneath the Irish posts seemed destined to lead to a penalty try, but just as Ireland concentrated all their efforts on that final scrum, France changed tact. Maxime Machenaud got the ball quickly out and worked it right for his namesake Medard to find the gap and score the game’s only try 10 minutes from time.
The South African referee was at the centre of things all afternoon. Joe Schmidt raged afterwards that he hadn’t allowed Dave Kearney to touch down before whistling in the first-half. Had he done so, the TMO would have shown the ball had come off Robbie Henshaw’s midriff and the score would have stood.
There was also the issue of the tackle which left Kearney with an AC joint injury that could end his Six Nations. French skipper Guilhem Guirado was very high and without much use of the arms, but escaped with just the concession of a penalty.
Yoann Maestri’s late hit on Johnny Sexton late on was perhaps worthy of yellow as well, but Peyper sent neither to the bin. The citing commissioner, as a result, is set for a busy week.
There was also the apparent repeat of their targeting of Johnny Sexton. A lesser man would have folded much sooner. He actually came out and led the decent Irish start to the second-half. But the French back three dealt confidently with the aerial assault.
The French may have been physical and cynical, but Ireland were plenty disappointing of their own accord. And in Sean O’Brien’s early hamstring injury and Mike McCarthy leaving on a stretcher after clashing heads with Jack McGrath, there was a bit of bad luck thrown in.
Guy Noves deserves credit for the management of the French front-row, even if he did try to deflect it. He started with a trio who could contain Ireland and finished with one who could blitz them.
The strain caused by the lack of experienced cover showed on the visitors in the second-half. Their scrum started well but, by the end, they were clinging on. France were trying to play an expansive game, but conditions didn’t really allow for it. Still, they made up for it with their physicality.
Barring one from Johnny Sexton early in the second-half, it’s hard to think of a single meaningful break from a green shirt. His game ended just as Jules Plisson kicked France into the lead with the conversion, leaving the field holding the back of his neck.
Ian Madigan’s restart from the try going straight into touch was a further invitation the French didn’t really need. He later set Robbie Henshaw up with a hospital pass inside his own '22’, only to escape courtesy of an earlier advantage. Had Paddy Jackson been in reserve, Ireland might have been able to play that final 10 minutes on the front foot.
They never looked like rescuing it. They were only marginally deserving of their 9-3 half-time lead, but they could scarcely have complained had it been the other way around. Indeed, but for the hero of France’s win over Italy, Jules Plisson, missing with a drop-goal attempt and then a late penalty, the scoreline might have reflected it more accurately.
France were nothing special themselves in that time, and had they been punished for venting their frustration on Dave Kearney, then it might well have been a different outcome. Citings are of little use to Ireland, whose hopes of a third Six Nations title in-a-row lie in ruins after two games.
France signalled their intent by kicking to the corner rather than for the posts while still trailing 9-3. Just past the hour, that decision became the launching pad. Superb Irish defence frustrated them initially, in particular an interception and a superb tackle on the hard-running Virimi Vakatawa from Andrew Trimble.
The TMO was called upon to turn away French claims for a try. Damien Chouly was ajudged to have come up short, but the final angle shown to the Stade de France crowd drew ire. It appeared he might have got there.
No try, but a five-metre scrum. Between injuries, stoppages and penalties, it was almost eight full minutes they spent trying to drive their way over. One penalty, two, three. No yellow card. No penalty try. The cacophony grew expectant and impatient. And then Machenaud, whose excellent display in the last half hour was another key to France’s win, worked the ball quickly from beneath Chouly’s feet to grant Medard the crucial score. Plisson’s conversion was simple.
Suddenly, from defending a lead for so long, Ireland found themselves chasing one. They had nothing left. Madigan’s restart really sucked the life out of them. Nine minutes from time, there was a finality about that error.
Ireland were left trying to run the ball from inside their own half, with the conditions showing no signs of letting up. France held on comfortably to properly kick-start the Noves reign.
Twickenham next. Suddenly, the fear of what might become of this injury-hit Irish campaign has grown.
Ireland: R Kearney; A Trimble, J Payne, R Henshaw, D Kearney; J Sexton, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best, N White; M McCarthy, D Toner; CJ Stander, S O’Brien, J Heaslip; Replacements: T O’Donnell for S O’Brien (20), F McFadden for D Kearney (29), D Ryan for McCarthy (62), T Furlong for White (62), I Madigan for Sexton (70), R Strauss for Best (71); Blood replacement: D Ryan for McCarthy (34-h-t); Penalties: Sexton (3).
France: M Medard; T Thomas, M Mermoz, J Danty, V Vakatawa; J Plisson, S Bezy; J Poirot, G Guirado, U Atonio; A Flanquart, Y Maestri; W Lauret, Y Camara, D Chouly; Replacements: S Rabah for Atonio (44), E Ben Arous for Poirot (44), H Bonneval for Thomas (44), C Chat for Guarado (47), M Machenaud for Bezy (56), P Jedrasiak for Maestri (58), R Slimani for Ben Arous (74), JM Doussain for Danty (76); Blood replacement: G Guirado for Chat (57-73); Try: Medard; Conversion: Plisson; Penalty: Plisson.
Referee: J Peyper (South Africa).