The schedule always looked a tough one for head coach Joe Schmidt and his coaching staff to manage successfully with a squad missing important cogs in various wheels and the reality has hit home forcibly these last two weekends in the form of huge physical confrontations within six days of each other.
The relief of a weekend away from the field of play could not come soon enough for Ireland but with a trip to England on the other side of it, there will be no chance to relax. Aside from the lengthening queue for the treatment tables, there will be a prolonged opportunity to ponder just exactly how they managed to lose to France in Paris on Saturday.
For all the justified criticism of ref Jaco Peyper and the muttering about short turnarounds; for the unwarranted levels of French on-field cynicism and the physical toll it took on Ireland’s players, the real frustration for Schmidt and company as they reflect on this narrow defeat will be how they failed to rise above all that and beat a downright average team at Stade de France.
For all those extenuating circumstances, Ireland blew their chance to wrap this game up by half-time, allowing France to regroup after a terrible, direction-less opening 40 minutes and slowly turn the screw at the scrum and sneak home by the skin of their teeth thanks to the only try of the game, 70th minute score from full-back Maxime Medard.
It was a fine try but there was little honour to the victory, certainly not enough to justify the lap of honour Guilhem Guirado led his team around the rain-sodden pitch afterwards. Yet win France did and that was all that asked of either side. The circumstances will not trouble the Six Nations table this morning, just the thoughts inside Schmidt’s head. He has plenty to stew over but an evaluation of Ireland’s already derailed bid for three titles in a row will not be one of them.
“There’s no hiding our disappointment,” Schmidt said. “Mathematically there’s an outside chance but realistically we know it’s a very, very outside chance. For us, it will be build towards Twickenham and put together the best performance we can over there. The first thing is to get the medical assessment and put together the players who are ready to go.”
Having already resigned himself to losing Sean O’Brien and Dave Kearney to injuries sustained during a first half Ireland had dominated but failed to sufficiently translate into points, the head coach will have his medical staff carefully monitoring the recoveries of concussion victim Mike McCarthy, a bruised and battered Johnny Sexton and Jared Payne, who suffered a dead leg but was forced to play through the pain for half an hour as there were no replacements left to come on, Fergus McFadden having already been thrown into the action less than 30 minutes in for the stricken Kearney.
That opening 40 minutes was where Ireland only had themselves to blame, although some efficient refereeing from Peyper would no doubt have helped. He disallowed a try for Dave Kearney for a knock-on by Robbie Henshaw that a check with the TMO would have confirmed was no such thing and he left two French players on the field that should have spent at least 10 minutes each in the sin bin for blatant foul play that again went unchecked and unsanctioned. Guilhem Guirado and Yoann Maestri the culprits, Dave Kearney and Sexton their respective victims.
Yet Ireland also failed to make the most of their several visits to the French 22, the non-try aside, and not for the first time this season there was an Irish side punished accordingly for not executing a perfectly sound gameplan. They had done so for 30 minutes against Wales, returning from their three visits into enemy territory with points on each occasion. In the rain and with a slippery ball testing the skill-sets on both sides, there was no such ruthlessness.
“I think you saw the strategy in the first-half, it allowed us to get pressure on them and maybe we felt we didn’t finish,” Schmidt said. “We felt we were pretty unlucky that he didn’t at least have a look at that try Dave Kearney scored. We felt the pressure we exerted on them frustrated them and caused them to commit errors and offer us penalties but maybe we just feel that we didn’t get enough on the back of either of those things. We didn’t deliver quite what we needed and maybe we didn’t get the decisions that we thought we otherwise might have.”
Schmidt’s other main concern will be the scrum as Ireland for the second week in a row caved in at the set-piece having started brightly with ball in hand. There were an energy-sapping 21 scrums in Paris on Saturday, a result of the increase in knock-ons and slipped balls and the French smelling of Irish blood once they had sent on their usually first-choice propping duo of Eddy Ben Arous and Rabah Slimani.
The pair disrupted what had been a settled, square and straight contest and Ben Arous’s angles in particular put paid to tighthead Nathan White’s hopes of a good, clean fight. Maxime Medard’s try, converted by Jules Plisson in the 70th minute off the back of a sustained period of French scrum dominance, edged an otherwise lacklustre France attack in front when it mattered, reeling in the 9-3 half-time lead Ireland had enjoyed through Sexton’s three penalties.
The Irish props simply didn’t have the caps to cope and how they could have done with the now-retired Paul O’Connell pushing behind them rather than watching from the stands as he began civilian life in the BBC commentary team. Schmidt, though, will hope the vastly more experienced Cian Healy and Mike Ross will be up to speed for Twickenham.
“It’s frustrating we couldn’t quite get our nose in front at the business end but strategy-wise (we) put it together pretty well in that first-half and it’s just disappointing we didn’t quite get the reward for that. I think when you don’t have experience you tend to panic a little bit, you might try too hard. I would say that we’ll be having a close look at the scrums, when Rabah Slimani and Eddy Ben Arous came on the square scrums went out the window and all sorts of angles came into play.
“That’s incredibly frustrating and it makes it very difficult to scrum against a team like that. If the only solution that’s being offered is stability what does that mean if those things aren’t being watched for. It just made it very difficult.”
M Médard; T Thomas (H Bonneval, 44), M Mermoz, J Danty (J-M Doussain, 76), V Vakatawa; J Plisson, S Bézy (M Machenaud, 55); J Poirot (E Ben Arous, 44-74), G Guirado – captain (C Chat, 48-57; 74), U Atonio (R Slimani, 44); A Flanquart, Y Maestri (P Jedrasiak, 58); W Lauret, Y Camara (L Goujon, 67), D Chouly.
R Kearney; A Trimble, J Payne, R Henshaw, D Kearney (F McFadden, 28); J Sexton (I Madigan, 69), C Murray; J McGrath (J Cronin, 74), R Best – captain (R Strauss, 70), N White (T Furlong, 62); D Toner, M McCarthy (D Ryan, 35-40 blood; 62); CJ Stander, S O’Brien (T O’Donnell, 20), J Heaslip.
Jaco Peyper (South Africa)