Our ‘smart’ defence was rewarded, declares Robbie Henshaw

‘Lethal’ was the word Rory Best reached for when he held court on the French attack at the pre-match press conference on Friday.

It was a statement that fits all too readily with the picture assembled of a side supposedly reinvigorated under Guy Noves and one capable of bludgeoning through a defensive wall before slicing the cover with a delicious offload or two.

The evidence of that was sketchy.

France did manage 11 tries in their three November internationals but seven of those were reeled off against Samoa. Claiming three against a less-than-full-strength Australian side wasn’t to be sneezed at but the well ran closer to dry against New Zealand with just the one five-pointer claimed.

Their Six Nations strike rate is even less convincing.

Noves has been at the helm for eight games in this competition now and they have just nine tries to show for it. Three of them came on the opening day last year against Italy at the Stade de France. Take that away and they are down to an average of less than one per game.

To be fair, they came close more than once at the weekend. A clumsy knock-on cost them five points from a beautifully worked move when Remi Lamerat crossed on the back of a Camille Lopez cross-kick 18 minutes in and it was only Jamie Heaslip’s blatant bit of illegal thievery on the floor that stemmed a sweeping advance into the Irish 22 a few minutes before.

All that said, Ireland survived and conceded just three penalties on the day. That’s a good body of work in any context.

“We knew that France were going to offload a lot,” said Robbie Henshaw, whose nine tackles put him right up there as one of Ireland’s defensive bulwarks. “Even with the slippery ball they got a few offloads and they kept the ball alive, which was tricky.

“We knew that we had to defend smartly inside and outside. Being able to come in when the offload was on, to stop it, we worked hard on that during the week. They got a few away and we’ll look at the defensive shape but not conceding a try in the game was a big bonus for us.” And for Andy Farrell, too.

The former England assistant coach was hired by Joe Schmidt amid a fair degree of fanfare and, though his imprint has been obvious in Ireland’s speed out of the traps, they were conceding close to an average of three tries per game until the stroll at the Stadio Olimpico two weeks ago.

Italy were restricted to a single penalty and a penalty try in Rome but Saturday in Dublin marked the first time since Farrell took over as defence coach in time for the three-Test tour of South Africa that Ireland have prevented a single five-pointer.

“Everyone has a job to do in defence,” Henshaw explained. “Ultimately we are a line speed team. We look to get as much line speed as we can. We try to execute that by having the forwards (secure) inside us so we can go and take things on the inside.”

There are similarities to their next assignment, away to Wales, in that recent meetings have had a tendency to lean towards attrition and low scores.

Take out the 2013 meeting in Cardiff when the sides managed three tries each and the other five meetings dating back to 2012 have coughed up just eight tries, with the Welsh managing only three of those.

“It’s going to be a tough challenge,” said Henshaw. “They will be hungry to get a win and they always turn it around at home. We’ll have to have our homework done and come out attacking them.”

They do say it’s the best form of defence.

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