Monday Review: The good, the bad and the ugly
Ireland got out of jail by the skin of their teeth, but what did we learn from the opening weekend victory in Paris?
"Yeah, I’d say I am angry, yeah. We should have trusted each other there in the last couple of minutes...I think it’s time lads grew up and got to know what’s expected of them when they pull on an Irish jersey."
The words of Seán O’Brien when Ireland let slip a lead with the clock in the red against New Zealand in November 2013. It was Joe Schmidt’s third game in charge and a chance at history slipped away with Ireland unable to close the game out. Saturday at the Stade de France was a timely reminder of the path the team has travelled since then in terms of game management.
The composure under pressure and willingness to back each other’s decision-making is the cornerstone of this team.
The 41-phase finale was a grandstand finish, but on second viewing, was a masterclass in precision.
Sexton deservedly takes the headlines, but Iain Henderson’s restart and carries, Keith Earls’ aerial prowess, Murray’s marshalling the move downfield), Kearney’s regathering of a pass after almost fumbling, not to mention to support at each ruck, was a joy to behold.
Midfield taking shape
Garry Ringrose is hoping to work his way back to full fitness in order to feature in the later rounds of the Six Nations, but the current midfield is going from strength to strength.
Rémi Lamerat and Henry Chavancy aren’t likely to cause quite the same problems as England, Wales and even Scotland if they get their act together, but they are a physically imposing pair.
Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki started only their second game together at Test level and Henshaw is the key defensive cog in the backline.
The Leinster man is building on his experience at 12 and was involved early in Sexton’s first penalty at the Stade de France and can create space for others as he demonstarted in the second minute to allow Rob Kearney to go on an arcing run.
The understanding with Aki is rekindled, with Henshaw slipping the ball to his former Connacht team-mate on the inside shoulder on a number of occasions at the Stade de France.
Similar to Brian O'Driscoll before him, Henshaw is always alert at the breakdown and often one of the first on the scene to try to force the turnover.
Aki is an obvious weapon with ball at hand and his hard line running got Ireland over the gainline when required.
Offensively they will develop as the competition continues, but their defensive nous will help the back three on the backfoot and it is no coincidence that only one try has been conceded in their two outings to date.
Murray & Sexton class
Professor Tom Gilovich at Cornell University has developed the headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry theory which suggests that there is a bias in people’s assessments of the benefits they've enjoyed compared to the barriers they've faced.
Essentially, a runner/walker/cyclist is aware of moving into the headwind at all times, but the benefit of having the wind at your back often fades quickly. Human nature means we forget sometimes when we have things good.
Irish rugby fans could be forgiven for at times for taking for granted that only the New Zealand half-back pairing of Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett can compare to Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton such is their consistency and class.
Sexton’s match-winning exploits have been well documented, but his role during the 41 phases was a man fully in control.
From the cross-field kick to Keith Earls.
To his willingness to carry.
Sexton led the way. The perfectionist in him will be disappointed with his one missed effort from the kicking tee, but cometh the hour, cometh the man.
Murray, along with Sexton and Tadhg Furlong, is one of our indispensables. The Munster man exudes class and his box-kicking accuracy was referenced by a number of French players post-match. They knew what was coming, but still couldn’t deal with the aerial bombardment.
His decision making is second to none and is more than capable of carrying himself when the opportunity arises.
The 25th minute was another example of Murray’s kicking quality. James Ryan’s pop pass in contact to Murray was rushed and failed to go to hand, allowing France to boot deep into Irish territory. Rob Kearney tidied up and Murray shouldered the responsibility of clearing danger.
His booming kick garnered valuable yardage to repel the French attack and allow the Ireland defence to reset and reorganise.
The kicking from both men wasn’t flawless – at times the kicks in-field seemed to favour France who were heavily loaded with bodies – but when they were needed most, both men stood up and were counted.
Joe Schmidt sends his troops to the field expecting 100pc commitment and focus and the current crop of players don’t seem to lack in self-motivation.
Hard work is taken as a given, but it’s the little things that make the big difference. In the 36th minute, Keith Earls chased debutant Geoffrey Palis as he attempted his clearing kick, lunging full stretch at the Castres full-back.
The winger managed to get a hand on the ball and France wouldn't regain possession again until Jalibert’s restart two minutes later following Johnny Sexton’s penalty to make it 9-3.
Overcoming official furstration
"It was difficult... He let them come off their feet at times," reflected Sexton post-match.
Normally Irish personnel give little away regarding the performance of match-day officials, but the out-half was clearly annoyed with the French tactics of slowing down ruck ball throughout the contest.
On a number of occasions in the first half Conor Murray is seen remonstrating with Nigel Owens in order to draw his attention to what he felt were blatant offences.
It continued after the break, though Sexton did punish Les Bleus on the scoreboard when the Welsh official did call out the French indiscretions.
Had Ireland lost, some of Owens’ decisions would have come under more scrutiny, but thankfully the men in green were able to get the result, late and all as it arrived.
The concession of six penalties isn’t a bad return away from home, but Joe Schmidt prides himself in Ireland’s ability to play within the rules. Those penalties will be dissected this week, along with the 13 turnovers Ireland coughed up.
Some in particular will really rankle as they came as a result of a lack of support for the ball carrier.
In the first half CJ Stander was uncharacteristically stripped of the ball by Kevin Gourdon as the Irish attack was stopped in its tracks.
Ireland would regain possession soon after, but once again the ball carrier, in this instance Rob Kearney, was pinged for holding on.
Lack of a cutting edge
On a day when all of the points came from the boot of Johnny Sexton, Joe Schmidt and his management team will be looking at their offensive strategies to see where they can carve out more openings.
A greasy ball, soft underfoot conditions, the first run out of the season and the fact it was a venue that has not been a happy hunting ground in the past meant try scoring opportunities were always likely to be at a premium, but after an encouraging start, the visitors rarely threatened a five-pointer.
The talk coming into the contest was that the electric Jordan Larmour might see some involvement, while Jacob Stockdale has been in tremendous scoring form this season for club and country. On the other wing Keith Earls has scored tries against Leinster (2), Connacht, Racing 92 and Castres in just eight outings for Munster this term, while Robbie Henshaw has brought further guile at 13.
So what happened at the Stade de France that saw Ireland rarely threaten a vulnerable France side without a win in 322 days?
Stockdale, and in particular Earls, got their hands on the ball in the early stages and sought holes in the French defence, but as the game progressed, it became more about territory and penalty kicks, about not losing rather than winning.
Sexton too struggled to pick apart the defence, while the ball carriers, so important in creating momentum, were met head on by their counterparts in blue. Had substitute Anthony Belleau landed his late penalty attempt, it would have been very hard to envisage Ireland conjuring up a try, rather than a kick at goals, to snatch the win.
Schmidt has often been described as a conservative coach, but the rest of the Championship will shed light on whether the Paris approach will continue as a pattern or simply a reflection of the opposition and conditions
The visit of Italy next should allow Ireland to improve the points difference, but work is to be done if Ireland are to breach Welsh and English defences.
There is always an amount of dirty diesel that must be burned off in game one. Three players came in for the first taste of action in the Championship, the midfield partnership had just its second outing while Jacob Stockdale earned his fifth cap. Add in limited time in camp and errors are inevitable.
There were a quite a few throughout the 80 minutes, rather than ill-discipline, and that will be drummed into the squad in Carton House this week.
The 17th minute lineout will make for grim viewing in the video analysis this week.
Peter O’Mahony soared into the French skies for a fine claim, but referee Nigel Owens blew the whistle in France’s favour.
The reason? Ireland simply got their numbers wrong.
After calling the lineout, Josh van der Flier was too slow to retreat at the tail and France number 8 Kevin Gourdon correctly pointed out the Irish numerical advantage.
A very sloppy mistake which thankfully came to nothing when Maxime Machenaud inexplicably fed the ball in crooked at the resulting scrum.