Standing pitchside as the players warmed up for yesterday’s Aviva Stadium clash, you could sense the tension. Focused minds, stern faces, sharp execution in every drill. Overseeing everything, the track-suited Joe Schmidt bounced around with nervous energy.
His final Six Nations encounter as Ireland head coach had crept up almost unnoticed. Beside him barking out the instructions to Rory Best, his on-field leader since Paul O’Connell departed the scene in 2015 — he too preparing for his Six Nations farewell to Lansdowne Road.
Given that Schmidt reverted, by and large, to his tried and trusted to lift the recent haze that had descended on Irish rugby to set the record straight, this combination not only needed to win but also deliver a performance in keeping with their lofty status in the new world order.
The intent was there for all to see. The importance of starting well against a French side whose appetite for battle away from home was still very much up for question, especially after the demolition job England did on them last time they were on the road in Twickenham.
Poor execution, unforced handling errors and inaccuracy at the line out had derailed Ireland’s title aspirations since the opening game of this tournament. From the outset of this one, however, it was clear that all those shortcomings were to be consigned to history.
The first task for Ireland was to undermine the confidence France had generated from the badly-needed victory over Scotland last time out. Schmidt would have targeted a blistering start from his charges but, even he couldn’t have envisaged the dominance his players enjoyed from the kick-off.
An opening try in less than three minutes stemming from an authoritative five-metre attacking line out that they had butchered early on in Rome. Best took the responsibility on himself in delivering a perfect throw to feed Iain Henderson at the tail of the line out, always a more challenging target. His reward was being on the end of a well-executed maul for an opening try that had the French reeling before they even caught their second breath.
Even the 19-point lead Ireland carried into the dressing room at the break seemed generous to the visitors when the extent of Ireland’s superiority was dissected through the match stats to that point. France were forced into making 136 tackles in that period, to a mere 26 from Ireland. That would certainly take its toll as the game progressed. Ireland had made 420 metres in carries compared to a measly 62 for the visitors.
The penalty count was six to one in Ireland’s favour and they had 50% territory — 20 minutes of action — in the French twenty-two alone.
That is incredible. The Irish forwards had their French counterparts in a vice-like grip they just couldn’t extricate themselves from. Their brilliant young scrum half Antoine Dupont has proved the one bright spark for the French in this tournament, but he was clearly targeted by the Irish forwards who put him under unrelenting pressure. He had a torrid time and will be seeing green jerseys in his sleep for some time to come.
His young half-back partner Romain Ntamack barely touched the ball and was rendered powerless in influencing the game. It didn’t help either that he had the superb CJ Stander running at him all day.
The Munster No 8 reminded everyone what has been missing since he was forced off injured against England, while his replacement Jack Conan also put in an excellent shift when introduced off the bench for the unfortunate Josh van der Flier who was forced off injured early in the contest.
Ireland’s set-piece was really impressive throughout and that enabled Ireland re- establish their mastery at the breakdown with the ball recycled so quickly it allowed the under pressure half-back pairing of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton remind everyone of just how good they are.
Murray was razor sharp with his passes zipping through the air while his box kicking became a rarity. Once again Sexton laid siege to the advantage line and while the French defended manfully at times, it was only a matter of time before the dam would burst, with Sexton himself finishing off one of his trademark loop plays with a try under the sticks.
Further out, Garry Ringrose threatened every time he was in possession and was so unlucky to miss out on a brilliant individual try when he lost control of the ball after a sublime aerial take over the head of Gael Fickou.
With Cian Healy having also being correctly denied what looked a certain score by the television match official, the only place that Ireland’s incredible superiority wasn’t being reflected was on the scoreboard which is always a worry.
Once Keith Earls touched down after yet another brilliantly inventive Schmidt power play off an attacking Irish line out that delivered the bonus point try on 55 minutes — I was wondering what Earls was doing standing at the front of that line out — the Irish management’s focus switched almost immediately to Cardiff and the possibility of challenging for the championship and scuppering another Warren Gatland- inspired Welsh Grand Slam.
A point behind England and two behind Wales on the table offers a glimmer of hope even if the Welsh and English squads will also fancy their chances of championship success on what’s primed to be another Super Saturday of action next weekend.
Within minutes of that Earls try, Schmidt withdrew his chief lieutenants in Best, Murray and Sexton, amongst others, when emptying his bench. That is part of the wider picture. The New Zealander admitted when announcing the team on Friday that the management carried a slightly different brief into this Six Nations.
Whereas in times past finishing as high up the Six Nations table — where every slot carries a higher financial dividend for the IRFU in prize money — was the prerequisite, this time out, preparing for the World Cup was also part of the wider picture.
With that in mind, the six-day period starting yesterday could not be more important as it doubles up as a dry run for what this squad faces when taking on Scotland and hosts Japan within the same tight time frame in the opening two games of our World Cup pool next September.
That is part of the longer term strategy even if all the focus this week will be in spoiling the Welsh party.
England will also fancy their chances of lifting the championship when entertaining Scotland in Twickenham. If Ireland do them a favour and beat Wales, then they will know exactly what is required to regain top spot as they are last into action at 5pm on Saturday evening.
For the beleaguered French, even the trip to Rome now looks fraught with danger as Conor O’Shea will chase his long overdue first tournament win. Right now, Schmidt would settle for finishing this challenging campaign with a victory in Cardiff, even if it only leads to a second place finish. After all, that is what he had predicted way back at the tournament launch.