Many pundits, myself included, were critical of the visitors before the game due to their inconsistent performances and lack of style.
But credit where credit is due, they defended well and were resilient throughout.
As champions we are being analysed more than ever before and because we play such a structured type of game it is easier for teams to design and implement a solid defensive plan to counter attack us.
Opposition management have adapted their defences knowing we don’t offload very often. This means it is easier for the inside or outside defender to help the primary tackler without fear of being caught out of position by a speedy offload as you would against a team who try and play the game on their feet and offload in contact.
Our attacking game-plan is hugely reliant on quick ball. We had the fastest ruck speed in last year’s tournament at an average of 2.7 seconds from the ball carrier hitting the ground to Conor Murray or the acting scrum-half passing the ball out.
I haven’t any data on our average ruck speed over the two games this season but to the naked eye it seems we aren’t being allowed to recycle the ball with the same ease or speed.
Jake White, the World Cup winning coach with the Springboks and now head coach at Montpelier in the Top 14, believes that the most successful teams often concede the most penalties at the defensive ruck as they work so hard to contest or slow down the ball.
France were penalised a few times on Saturday night at the defensive ruck but when they escaped the referee’s notice they were successful at slowing down our ball which allowed them to get their defensive line in shape.
We saw England’s back row in particular smash the Welsh ball carriers back in the first game and the challenge for Ireland on Sunday week will be to try and manipulate their defence so that they rarely have a chance to rush off the line.
Teams coached by Joe Schmidt tend to play a lot of midfield rucks when they come up against sides with powerful defences as it is very hard for them to ‘rush’ when they have to defend space on both sides of the ruck.
I felt that Jonathan Sexton’s performance in the first half was a credit to his professionalism after a 12 week lay-off. He showed why he is the best ten in the northern hemisphere on Saturday evening. His place kicking was flawless while he varied his game brilliantly which continuously put the French back three under pressure. However I think that Sexton may need to work at tackling at little lower in order to protect himself from further injury.
Sean O’Brien was very good considering his spell on the sidelines and he too will benefit massively from the match fitness. We also saw our other power athlete Cian Healy coming off the bench and making an impact.
One area Ireland must improve on is our ability to convert possession and territory into tries. France were there for the taking early in the second half, particularly during the sin binning of Pascal Pape (which was a disgraceful cheap shot) but our errors allowed them to stay in the game and the closeness of the score and their impact players meant we were hanging on.
We had a great chance to score a try off a good lineout maul in the but unfortunately Sexton couldn’t connect with Payne who ran a short line. To beat England we must convert these opportunities or face the consequences.
Robbie Henshaw was excellent on and off the ball. He is incredibly mature for someone so young. He works so hard and when Sexton drops back into the back field in their half Henshaw seems to be the defensive leader, organising everyone and bringing that line up to meet the opposition as quickly as possible.
His partnership with Payne is one that can become very potent.