Ireland showed France too much respect but found perfection when it was needed
So many positives, and more than enough negatives.
For the third year in a row in the Six Nations, Ireland needed a push start to get the engine running. This time though, they got their win.
It was awful and glorious, 75 minutes of the most forgetful rugby they’ve played in recent years, followed by an ending to remember.
The major positive is that when they needed to be perfect, Ireland were just that.
Trailing by one, with barely two minutes to go, they needed to kick a 22 dropout, regain possession, and work a score. It was a two-minute (plus extras) drill that Tom Brady would have bowed his head to.
Every moment needed to be perfect, and it was. Iain Henderson won the dropout, ticking the first box. For phase after phase they carried, but after more than 20 of them they had barely got within a sniff of the half way line. Without taking a risk, they would probably still be there, picking and going, picking and going, picking and going.
Johnny Sexton went for the crossfield kick. Again, it needed perfection. The trajectory had to be right, the weight had to be balanced, Keith Earls had to time his run to the inch, and time his jump to the millisecond. Finally they were inside the French half, but still had to find yards.
More phases, more disciplined French tackling, more patience. It ticked over phase 40, and they were still outside the preferred range. With every phase, the chances of a dropped ball or a bad clearout or a French turnover were growing higher and higher. Johnny Sexton had enough, and went for it from 45 metres out. A couple of extra coats of paint on the crossbar, and it might not have made it.
It was an incredible moment, proof if it was needed that Sexton is a gamechanger. It was their Get Out Of Jail Free card, but one they shouldn’t have ever needed to use.
A poor French side were given more respect than they deserved, which is something of a pattern in recent years. While Ireland have beaten France in five of their last six games, they’ve only scored six tries in that time. That inferiority complex has made almost every game between the sides in recent years an arm-wrestle, and with a large pack of forwards the only weapon in the French arsenal, it has played directly into their hands.
Considering Ireland were just occasional contenders before the turn of the century, it’s understandable that there is a mental hang-up when it comes to playing against France. While Ireland are clearly a better team on paper, it still feels unusual to expect a win against the French. But if Ireland are to have notions about winning regular Six Nations titles, and challenging further in the World Cup, they have to put the foot down on the throat, rather than holding them off at arm’s length.
It’s confidence rather than cockiness. You’ll see it next weekend against Italy, where they’ll play their opponents for what they are, rather than what they were.
Luckily, the overly cautious approach hasn’t left them looking up the table from the off. The Grand Slam is there to be won, but only if they convince themselves of it.