Ask me what I thought about Saturday’s draw in the immediate aftermath and you would have got a negative reaction. Ask me today, after taking time to analyse it, and you get the positive side.
Looking at the two teamsheets last week, in particular the differences in perceived quality on the bench, and you would have expected France to win. Factor in Ireland’s injury list as well, particularly taking into account the quality of players who were missing, and you have to credit Ireland’s performance.
Injuries are part and parcel of modern professional rugby but there is an argument for a total review of our high profile Player Management Programme which is designed to ensure our top players are in the best possible condition to play international rugby when needed. The provinces often argue that they know the players’ bodies best and are best equipped to monitor them day in day out. They want the decisions to be made on an individual basis rather than set down to them.
If our injury crisis is down to a very unfortunate run of injuries, which it may well be, then that’s fair enough but at least we will know we are following best practice.
The French players played for their Top 14 clubs last weekend when our starters were off and despite Philippe Saint-Andre’s complaints about the length of the season and volume of matches in the league, their players looked freshest in the closing stages.
Having only beaten France once in the last 13 matches, history was not on our side but Ireland started the game very well and had clearly learned massively from the experience of losing to England in similar weather conditions.
There was a clear strategy to kick to touch to contest the lineouts and pin the French back three, who are very good counter-attackers, into both corners.
Conor Murray had his best match for Ireland and did the same kind of job that Ruan Piennar does at Ulster by taking the pressure off Paddy Jackson throughout the match. He varied his kicks superbly between high bombs close to the touchline — but within reach of the chasers — to little dinks over the ruck or maul. That exploited the defensive alignment of Maxine Medard in particular, who was standing very deep to try and play as an extra full-back.
In hindsight, the decision to replace Murray with Eoin Reddan backfired as Eoin’s strength is quickening the speed of the game with his speed of mind and action around the ruck. In the conditions it was important to keep playing the tactical kicking game that served us so well for the first 60 minutes and it was hard for our players to lift the pace of the game given the effort they had put in.
We fixed the issues at the lineout we had against Scotland and our maul was incredible. It led to our try for Jamie Heaslip but I was very impressed with the level of cohesion of the pack in this area throughout the game.
We knew we couldn’t beat the French pack by meeting them head on and employed a variety of shift drives which negated their size and power and allowed us drive forward and gain territory and penalties in this area.
Jackson kicked well from the ground and had a decent game. His only problem lay in his ability to get a back line moving and with the rain pelting down it made it incredibly hard to play with any width.
The French realised this and allowed their defensive line to stand much closer together than they would on a dry day. When you employ a tight defence you have confidence to get off the line even faster and close down the space.
France have bigger more athletic players than us at the moment and together with that line speed we were not able to break the gain line through our ball-carriers.
The positive was that, while modern rugby is increasingly decided by collisions, we dominated that area. Despite this we were in a great position at 13-3 and if we got one more score after half time the French would have caved in.
A turning point in the French resistance for me was a quickly taken penalty by Murray that was kickable. That phase of play ended with Rob Kearney attempting a drop goal off his right foot and the French team, reinvigorated with impact players Debaty, Classens and Bastardeau, started to play with the pride, passion and direction that had been absent for the first 60 minutes.
This Irish team will learn that when you have the lid on the coffin like we did that you need to hammer in the nails.
Saint-Andre was understandably relieved afterwards. His decision to start the match with Freddie Michalak was a mistake and they were lucky to avoid a fourth straight loss.
For Ireland the composition of our finishing back line told the story of the match. We don’t have the resources at the moment to play the power game and win. A dry track in Rome and Sexton returning will hopefully see a different result.