The view from France: 'We could have lost that last year. We emptied ourselves'

France, seeking their first win in Dublin since 2011, passed Winning Ugly 101
The view from France: 'We could have lost that last year. We emptied ourselves'

France's Teddy Thomas and Gael Fickou celebrate at the final whistle. Picture: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Gael Fickou warned in the run-up to yesterday's Six Nations examination against Ireland that France needed to learn to win tight games ugly.

"We are working on it, even if we cannot fight our culture of moving the ball and creating uncertainty in defences," he told reporters before the squad left for Dublin. "But under certain conditions, you have to know how to play a more restricted game … you have to know how to win without playing a good game."

Yesterday, France, seeking their first win in Dublin since 2011, passed Winning Ugly 101. There will be other tests - as stern as this one and more difficult still - in the months ahead, but this was a reference-point win for Fabien Galthie's nu-France, up there with the win in Wales last year.

Gregory Alldritt summed up the effort put into passing this latest test. "It was difficult," he told TV reporters after the game. "We gave it our all. We emptied ourselves. We said the main thing was to give everything we had - and I think we proved it on the last play, where we did not give up.

This was a match we could have lost last year - but we are progressing in every game.

"We can always play better and make things easier [for ourselves], so we will continue to work, see where we can progress."

In the last year, France have ended Six Nations losing streaks in Cardiff and Edinburgh. After the excellent Luke Pearce blew the final whistle yesterday, only London remains unconquered.

Importantly, though they were occasionally rattled as Ireland mixed a well-thumbed tactical gameplan with moments of individual skill, there was little sense of the panic that would once have coursed through French veins.

This - the calmness under stifling pressure - pleased Galthie most about this win, another step along the road he has mapped out to France 2023. "What interests me above all is that, despite difficulties at the start of the match, the team, without panic, gradually corrected their issues, then took control of the game," he said in the post-match press conference.

"We were able to understand and adapt to what was happening in front of us.

"It was our 17th week together, our 11th game. It is important for our collective experience.

It's interesting to check off the steps. These matches are not an end … but we have to go through them to continue to progress on our path.

The stats tell their own story of defensive effort. France made 203 tackles to Ireland's 146. They missed 23, one fewer than Ireland. Crucially, they held the hosts at arm's length.

The back three, Brice Dulin in particular, dealt with the expected aerial bombing raids, and the defence, though occasionally stretched and clearly troubled by Ireland's weaponised lineout early on, was rarely broken.

France players celebrate after the game. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie
France players celebrate after the game. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

Early on, they had been glued into their own half and unable to hold on to the ball. It had looked just a matter of time before Ireland scored.

The hosts bossed territory and the possession in the opening half-hour. As they had done for long periods of the first half in Paris at the end of October, Andy Farrell's men looked like they had the beating of Les Bleus - but they only had a solitary Burns penalty to show for it.

Then, after 29 minutes of defence, which featured three lost lineouts, a series of penalties, and a yellow card, France finally got their attacking phases pointing in the right direction. Being French, it was a snaking rapier cut in a street brawl. And it cut deep.

Ollivon was the one who touched down, but it was a score made by Matthieu Jalibert's speedy break, and support players pouring into places defences don't want them to be. The ball went right, then left - and, as Ireland scrambled to reorganise, even a poor pass that bounced in front of Fickou couldn't stop it. The pass to Ollivon wasn't clever, either, but he caught it well over his head and galloped over.

Suddenly the game changes. Where Ireland had been in charge, France now had the measure of their opponents. Their second try, a quarter-of-an-hour into the second half, had a certain inevitability about it. Fickou blitzed into contact in the Irish 22 following a French scrum. Jalibert flicked the ball off his left hand as space opened up on the right, Dulin grabbed it and held off the determined Ed Byrne to release Penaud to score in the corner.

That should have ended it. It's to Ireland's credit that it didn't. Kelleher's score - lucky though it was - pulled them back into the game, and a 65th-minute Ross Byrne penalty made it closer than France would have liked.

This is where old France would have lost it. But nu-France regathered and defended Ireland into the ground.

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