The sight of Jules Plisson blasting over a game-winning penalty from long-range for France against Italy at Stade de France last Saturday left an impression on Joe Schmidt that he will be sure to pass on to his players as Ireland prepare for their own trip to Paris this weekend.
Plisson’s 54-metre piledriver got his country out of a big hole, as the Guy Noves reign got off to a winning if less-than-spectacular start, with a narrow 23-21 win on the first game of the 2016 RBS 6 Nations.
And they might still have lost, if Italy’s No 8 and captain fantastic Sergio Parisse had managed to pull off an audacious last-gasp drop goal to steal victory.
Yet whatever it did for France and new head coach Noves, it served as a timely reminder for Ireland their much improved discipline against Wales at the weekend must continue into this Saturday’s return to the French capital.
Ireland conceded just seven penalties in their 16-16 draw with the Welsh on Sunday, having conceded an average of 13 against Warren Gatland’s team in their three games in 2015.
In their two meetings with France last year, the Irish average per game was 11.5 penalties conceded and Schmidt will want to see a similar improvement if his team is to get their first victory of the 2016 championship and repeat their 2014 win in Paris.
“One of the things for next week is going to be discipline,” the head coach said, looking forward to game two.
“Jules Plisson, with that kick at the end, it was a phenomenal 54-metre kick to effectively win the game. So we can’t afford to invite them into the game by giving out anything that they haven’t really had to work hard for.”
Schmidt was certainly happy with his team’s efforts against Wales, forcing referee Jerome Garces to blow just three times away from the scrum, one of those for what he judged to have been a dangerous tackle by Keith Earls on Liam Williams, the other two for breakdown offences by Tommy O’Donnell and Jack McGrath.
“It was something we worked really hard on during the week, just not giving them opportunity to lock us in on their side of the ruck and getting out of their as quickly as we can, not falling on their side,” Schmidt said.
“When Jamie Roberts hits as hard as he does, he inevitably falls forward and sometimes you end up on the wrong side so you just have to roll out of there as quick as possible.
“From that perspective I felt we worked really hard, we got onto a couple of balls there that we might have been a bit unlucky – if you’re first in on your feet you’ve got the rights to the ball – but when we were told to release it and leave it by Jerome, I thought the players responded really positively to that.
“It kept the game flowing but it also kept the penalty count down because they listened to the referee and he’s the sole man in charge.”
The sole man in charge this weekend in Paris will be South Africa’s Jaco Peyper but the imperatives will be the same. What will change, Schmidt feels, is the difference in the opposition.
From facing a settled Wales side and coaching team, he will have to lock horns with Toulouse legend Noves and a new-look line-up he is moulding, having taken over the wreckage of a disastrous World Cup campaign.
“The script’s something similar, size-wise, but experience-wise, it’s hugely different and continuity wise, it’s hugely different,” Schmidt said.
Last Saturday’s win over Italy was hardly the stuff of brave new worlds and although Noves has claimed from the start that this will be a gradual transition, he will be demanding improvements for his second game. There may well be no Louis Picamoles, whose thigh injury suffered against the Italians has sidelined him for the rest of the championship, but Schmidt is wary of what remains.
“I think like anything, going into the unknown is a little bit daunting and seeing some of the athletes they have in the new guys in there,” he said, name-checking Stade Francais centre Jonathan Danty, the man who has replaced Mathieu Bastareaud, ball-carrying back row Yacouba Camara, and Clermont lock Paul Jedrasiak.
“I think we can’t afford to be quite so narrow defensively against France. You can get away with that against Wales, but it’s a real risk against the French. The width they played with was impressive at times.
“You’re just going to have to be careful whatever you do, because they’re audacious in what they’re looking to deliver at the moment and if they make it work, gee, they could run up a big score in a hurry.
“We have to make sure we are very clinical with the ball and not to allow them too many opportunities.”
Ireland’s Three Fixes
It was a torrid first-half for the Ireland front row against Wales, and tighthead Nathan White in particular. Welsh boss Warren Gatland had demoted loosehead Gethin Jenkins to the bench in order to send attack dog Rob Evans after White and it worked a treat, as the Scarlets man disrupted his opposite number’s binding to help eke out four scrum penalties agaunst the Irish pack, three of them in successive contests just before half-time in front of the home line. That led to Wales’s only score of the game from the next scrum.
It will not get any better this weekend when Ireland face loosehead Eddy Ben Arous and tighthead Rabah Slimani, both of whom can cause serious problems as they scrummage on the edge. Joe Schmidt will be hoping tighthead Mike Ross passes fit and hits the ground running in his first game since before Christmas.
Ireland’s ruthlessness was initially very good against Wales. In the opening 30 minutes, they emerged with points, two penalties, and a converted Conor Murray try, from their three visits to the Welsh 22 and jumped into a 13-0 lead.
Yet the mistakes began to creep in after that and Wales began to enjoy the majority of possession.
When Ireland did get to play, though, they lost the clinical edge to convert their possession into points and went scoreless for 47 minutes from Sexton’s conversion to his game-tying third penalty six minutes from time. There had been no lack of effort in the meantime but dropped balls, knock-ons and good Welsh disciplined helped keep the Irish off the scoreboard.
That 47-minute scoreless spell highlights Ireland’s habit of drifting in and out of games. For the first 30 minutes they were superb, playing at a high tempo and intensity. The 10-minute period before half-time, though, let Wales back into the contest and ultimately that cost them a winning start to the campaign, the first time they have failed to win a championship opener since losing controversially, 23-21 to Wales in Dublin in 2012.
Against Argentina, in last October’s quarter-final, it was a sluggish start that set the tone for the comprehensive 43-20 defeat in Cardiff, Ireland 17-0 down after 13 minutes. In the same stadium seven months earlier, Wales had ended Ireland’s Grand Slam hopes in the penultimate game as they raced into a 12-0 lead after 14 minutes, poor discipline costing them dearly.
All games ebb and flow but Ireland have to bring a consistency to their performance over 80 minutes and more to ensure that those inevitable ebbs are not costly ones.
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