"I remember refereeing Thierry Dusautoir, captain for France at the time. I was trying to tell him something and he said to me "you have to speak slower, or maybe if you were speaking Welsh I could understand better". I thought this was funny."
As part of an interview for the official RBS Six Nations site on the topic of #RespectTheRef, Nigel Owens shared the mini-anecdote above, and I was reminded of it watching this match over a second time.
Like I said in my preview, we always wonder “which French team is going to show up”. Personally I was more concerned about what we were going to do, but as it turned out it was interesting to see how Guy Noves’ men set themselves out for this contest.
One thing we expected was physicality, not just in normal duties, but also the little “extras” we have all come to know and loathe, particularly on Johnny Sexton. They were there alright, but luckily there was nothing too bad from an injury standpoint.
Then there was their team spirit. Ronan O’Gara said before the game that he was speaking to “a few former players” who had been in and around the dressing room and apparently they were using remarks in the Irish press to motivate them. Well, by all accounts, it worked as they definitely looked focused, most of all in that opening spell.
But there was something else, and I couldn’t put my finger on it watching it live. It was a tactic in and around the breakdown, but just in case I start to sound like Eddie Jones I want to point out that I’m not complaining about this; I actually kind of admire it, if indeed it was planned.
Time and time again as we tried to construct one of our IKEA-esque series of phases, we saw a French forward or three lingering around the breakdown. He may have his head down over the ball, he may be grabbing a jersey to prevent a clearout, or often he may have miraculously found himself beyond the ruck altogether, right where Conor Murray is about to collect the ball. Of course I know everyone does these things, but the French seemed to be letting it go on a fraction of a second longer each time.
We are so committed to our structures, especially in the first quarter, that even the tiniest hint of delay could throw us off altogether, and that is pretty much exactly what happened. But what of the referee? Isn’t Nigel Owens known as a great communicator who will tell you what he thinks you’re doing wrong?
Yes, that he may be, and few officials actually earn #RespectTheRef in the modern game more than he, but here I’m not talking about respect. The various things the French were doing would have involved long-winded explanations from Nigel, and not only that, he is also a ref who likes to let the game flow where possible. So I’m wondering just how willing he was to call the visitors out on their little niggles? And if he did, would he be met with one of these?
OK, maybe that was a little tongue in cheek, but that opening spell did knock us back, and we are a side that generally needs a good start; just look what happened in Murrayfield.
And how well were we dealing with their exploits? Not so much at first. In fact, my two biggest concerns surrounding our attacking approach were borne out in that time - one, that we’re vulnerable to teams who set out to thwart us, and two, that we’re a little too eager to look for penalties, something that many refs seldom appreciate, particularly this one.
It’s not like the accuracy on which we depend was spot on either. All it took was one errant Johnny Sexton kick to touch on the full and France were able to get themselves into a strong attacking position. Then later Simon Zebo made a complete horlicks of dealing with a ball heading for touch near his tryline - what should have been a lineout for us became a 5m scrum to France.
On another day, we could have found ourselves 0-14 down. Instead, thanks to a strong defensive line and a hint of luck as well, the deficit was only six. So now the question was simple. To get our side of the scoreboard moving, were we going to just keep plodding along as we had so far against the French defensive onslaught or would we try something different to make them think again? Luckily it was the latter.
At the 25th minute after a few more “going nowhere” phases, Sexton dinked a little kick over the onrushing defenders that found a good touch right outside their 22. Then a few minutes later after some good mauling got us on the front foot, he finally got his backline moving and found himself in a bit of space to run, but even here his options were limited so he chose to kick...at first it looked like he sliced it but the ball dropped perfectly into a place where the French defence would struggle to cope...now it was our turn to pile on the pressure at a 5m scrum.
Once in this position, our mojo began to flow throughout the side like a switch had been flicked. Now it was our turn to win a penalty at a 5m scrum, now it was our turn to opt for a reset, and now it was our turn to launch an attack on the tryline, only this time we weren’t taking “non” (or indeed “bof”) for an answer.
Just on a side note that I haven’t seen covered much...for all the defensive responsibility we place on our centres, we can really depend on them for crash ball options as well, even if they aren’t in the Bastareaud mould. Ringrose made several steady gains throughout the evening, but on this occasion it was Henshaw pushing back the first wave of French resistance before Conor Murray took it the rest of the way.
All of a sudden, thanks to the conversion being popped over by Sexton, Ireland were in the lead despite all the early frustration.
We did everything we could to significantly increase it before break, including a quick tap penalty from Sexton from what would have been a kickable position - the visitors were able to hold out both this time and for 14 exhausting phases before the whistle, though not before getting the first half warning from Nigel that we didn’t see on our previous two outings.
So after the temporary solution made on the pitch mid-half, we now had the opportunity for Joe Schmidt & co to work their magic as they have done so many times before. As half-time wore on I tried desperately to ignore a voice at the back of my head which said “We’ve got this” but it was persistent. And thankfully, it was right.
Before I go on, I hope there aren’t any Irish fans who feel we somehow left a bonus point behind. I thought we had a chance going into the game, but the conditions combined with French determination made that very difficult. No, the path to this win was going to come from staying on the front foot and capitalising on French mistakes, and we won the 3rd quarter thanks to three penalties that came at 4-5 minute intervals.
The first was after Nigel finally started pinging the French shenanigans. At a scrum in their own 22, their 9 Serin thought he could stand in Conor Murray’s way - he was wrong. Sexton kick, 10-6.
Next we relied on our own defence, which was every bit as effective as our visitors’ yet much more conventional. They had tried to exploit any “narrowness” by getting it wide quickly but we were able to shut it down and by the time the clock neared 50 we were well set to hold them out. We were even able to deal with pressure on our own scrum thanks to quick thinking between Jamie Heaslip and Conor Murray.
It wasn’t long before we were back in their 22 and with a penalty advantage coming, Sexton stroked over a drop goal that was the highlight of the match for many. Sorry about this, but to that I say “meh!”. No doubt it was a technically well-struck kick in a pressure situation, I just personally think you should always go for a try with an advantage, especially which the pen is in a kickable position. But that’s just me, and the good news was that now our lead was out to seven.
At this stage the rain was getting heavier, and that wasn’t the only thing falling from the sky that was hurting the French chances. For me Sexton’s drop kick wasn’t nearly as impressive as his bombing garryowens that hit their target right outside the French 22 with deadly accuracy. I know catching high balls is a full back’s job, but when they fall just outside your “safety” zone like that, they throw off even the most seasoned test performer, and Scott Spedding dropped two at key moments.
Then after Ireland forced a penalty at the ensuing scrum, Sexton was able to push the lead out to ten, meaning the French now needed two scores in the final quarter. To their credit, their heads never dropped. But thankfully, this was the phase of the game where Conor Murray earned his man of the match award.
Normally I think it’s lazy to give the medal to a lone try scorer but that is far from the case here. Just when we needed him most, as the French were trying to find a path back into the contest, Murray was in the right place at the right time doing exactly the right thing. First, not to be outdone by his outhalf, there was his kicking. Some absolutely superb positional play, particularly from deep inside his own 22.
But what sealed it for me was a tackle on Scott Spedding. Simon Zebo had just hit a woeful kick which I don’t even think was intended as a grubber and which the South African-born fullback was able to take easily to start a dangerous counter attack. He was ably supported by his winger Nakaitaci but when he got it back he was close to breaking away completely.
Given the conditions plus the speed at which he was running, many would have slipped off the tackle but Murray was bang wide to the importance of the situation and hauled him down. For me, this gave us the chance to regroup...eventually their sub prop was pinged for a neck roll on Sean O’Brien but I’d be confident the try opportunity was already gone.
France did trouble the scorers again after Toner was pinged for a bit of his own off-the-ball tomfoolery (I guess he didn’t “sell it well” as the saying goes) and Lopez brought them to within a score. Anyone who knows the history of this fixture would have thought a draw was on the cards at that stage. Anyone, that is, except the fifteen men glad in green.
It’s like our intensity increases when we concede a score. Sometimes when we start to look lethargic I wonder if we should just let the other lot in for a try so we could get fired up and hit back with two of our own. We squeezed the French exit off the restart and earned ourselves a lineout at the 22, just like that we were hitting them with phases and winning a penalty which Paddy Jackson, on for a much deserved cameo, easily converted to restore our ten-point margin.
That score killed the match as a contest but credit to our “finishing” lineup for playing right to the final whistle, we never let up. And once more, credit to the French for coming with a decent plan to ask us questions, it’s just we did very well to find the right answers.
And while Conor Murray was the man of the match and Johnny Sexton showed us exactly why he is our presumptive starting out-half, much credit must go to the pack. Hard to single out names; in fact, I won’t. The eight starters did extremely well as did the six who replaced them. In many ways I understand why Murray was so humble in accepting his prize.
So...where does this leave us in the Six Nations Championship? Well I’m not sure where I heard it, but someone described our final three matches like they were knockout games. France was the quarterfinal, and we had problems but got our way through it. And at the end of the first half at Twickenham yesterday, I jokingly hoped England would be similarly off guard when they come to Dublin for St Patrick’s weekend.
But that of course leaves out the “semifinal” in Cardiff on Friday week, and that is all we can be thinking about for the next while. Wales might be out of title contention but they won’t want to lose a third match in this series, especially in front of their home crowd and even more especially against us. So it’s all to do.
What’s that you say? Do I think we can do it? Maybe we can come up with our own "Gaelic Shrug", one that suggests modesty to disguise quiet confidence? JLP