Joe Schmidt’s impeccable record of never having lost a Six Nations contest at the Aviva Stadium has served to keep Ireland’s hunt for a third championship in four seasons very much alive.
Only time will tell whether a second defeat on the bounce for Wales will serve to galvanise them further for our visit to Cardiff in that dreaded Friday night slot on March 10 or drain them of confidence ahead of what has become another must win game for Schmidt’s men in order to retain a fighting chance of title success for the visit of all conquering England — who were pushed to the wire by Italy yesterday — on St Patrick’s weekend.
With places on a Lions tour up for grabs, individually and collectively the Welsh players still have something tangible to fight for and, as Warren Gatland revealed a few seasons ago, they don’t like the Irish much anyway.
For those Irish players targeting a trip to New Zealand next June, winning the championship is the best way of making sure there will be plenty of familiar faces on the plane when it departs from London Heathrow.
If ever a game highlighted the importance of having a dominant pair of half backs then Saturday was the perfect example. Paddy Jackson has done wonderfully well in the absence of Johnny Sexton but the Leinster play-maker offered a telling reminder of why Schmidt places such value in having him in his starting team with a hugely impressive performance on his return to action. Sexton makes things happen and while, from an attacking perspective, Ireland will be disappointed with a return of just that single try, Sexton broadened Ireland’s attacking options. Much credit goes to the French who were very well organised from a defensive perspective, displaying far more resilience without the ball that we have seen in recent seasons.
They kept pushing Ireland right to the finish, despite looking extremely vulnerable in that key 10 minute period after half-time when Ireland took control of the contest as Sexton registered nine points from two penalties and a sumptuous drop goal.
The fact Ireland’s try, when it did come late in the opening half, was delivered by Sexton’s outstanding half back partner, Conor Murray, was entirely fitting.
After a challenging opening encounter against Scotland in Murrayfield, Murray has bounced back impressively and was magnificent on Saturday with his option taking in relation to when to kick, pass or break immaculate.
The biggest advantage Ireland carried into this pivotal game was the vast chasm in terms of international experience bagged by the respective half back pairings. Ireland’s had 118 caps between them while the highly promising French scrum half Baptiste Serin and his partner Camille Lopez a mere 20. That proved decisive.
Not only did Sexton pull all the strings when in possession, he contributed a counter ruck that any second row forward would be proud of and a key turnover at the breakdown.
The fact he lasted until the 70th minute of intense action, despite yet another late hit from a French forward, this time his former Racing Metro teammate Eddy Ben Arous, was probably the most pleasing aspect of all.
If Schmidt had reason to be happy with Sexton’s telling contribution, his Lions equivalent Warren Gatland will be delirious.
It is important Sexton now backs up this performance with another positive showing in Cardiff and few would bet against him doing so.
You really have to admire his mental toughness and resilience to perform to this level with so little game time behind him. He is fresh and voracious for action which augurs well for the key challenges coming up against Wales and England.
Ireland didn’t kick quite as often as was predicted in the opening half and, when they did, Scott Spedding and Yoann Huget dealt with everything thrown at them with a fair degree of success.
Yet there was never any sense of panic within the Irish ranks that they weren’t making the serious inroads in areas they had anticipated would be profitable.
One does, however, have to question the decision not to bag some more points from the boot with kickable penalties turned down in Ireland’s best 10 minute spell just before the half-time whistle.
On the flip side, Rory Best is entitled to highlight Ireland’s sole try from Murray, the foundation of which came from a rock solid, attacking five metre scrum.
The Ireland front five delivered the perfect launch pad to unleash Robbie Henshaw in a surge that took him all the way to the line before Murray seized the opportunity perfectly to register yet another international try.
While the French were estatic to have successfully defended a series of Irish line out mauls after the concession of a series of penalties close to their line, the energy expended in doing so meant some of their forwards looked spent heading for the dressing room at the beak.
Whether encouraged by the arrival of a heavy drizzle or under instruction from Schmidt during that half time debrief to relaunch a fresh aerial bombardment, the fact Spedding dropped two skyscrapers in a row energised Ireland and sank French hearts just a little.
After a horrific pass from Sebastian Vahaamahina and a blatantly forward one from Noa Nakaitaci, French heads began to visibly dip for the first time in the game.
The disappointing thing was Ireland were unable to kick on from there, enabling the visitors to work their way back into contention by reducing the contest into a one score game once again with time running out.
A timely penalty from Jackson, who had replaced Sexton by that stage, killed off any chance of a third draw between the sides in six years.
With a marked dominance in territory and possession the failure to come anywhere close to registering a try scoring bonus point will not go unnoticed by Schmidt. That said, Garry Ringrose is looking far more influential with every international outing.
His eye for an outside break, his balance and evasion skills are going to make some hapless opponent look pretty silly some time soon.
What will also please the perfectionist in Schmidt is an incredible 100% return from 22 line out feeds, a huge number these days, and the growing value of the Irish scrum against such a powerful and well organised French set piece. Given the close nature of this fixture in the Six Nations in recent years a 10 point win is not to be sniffed at.
All roads now lead to Cardiff.
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