I was delighted to see Billy Burns holding the ball to kickoff this match. He couldn’t possibly have had an earlier opportunity to put Cardiff behind him, and his kick into the French 22 was perfect.
So was the chase. Dulin caught it easily enough but there were plenty of Irish jerseys there to stop any kind of cheeky counter attack and after a quick phase the ball was sent back to the French 15 to dispatch into touch. Enter another Ulster hero, skipper Iain Henderson. Again, he couldn’t have let his opposition know he was there much sooner than his block of Dulin’s attempted clearance.
If that ball ricochets over the French try line, there was Healy, Herring and Earls with Hendo to dot it down for the perfect start. What do the rugby gods make it do instead? Head straight to winger Villière who reacts incredibly well to set up a cheeky French counter attack anyway and they escape the danger.
And it wasn’t to be Villière’s only involvement in the first couple of minutes. As Gibson-Park tried to get us moving again in their half, it was blue 11’s outstretched hand that prevented the pass making it’s target.
If that pass reaches Keith Earls, he had Henshaw with him on the touchline to make the most of a lot of space in front of them. To be fair, if the ball stuck to Villière’s hand, it could have been a try the other way. Yet when those instead go to ground, many referees would have at least awarded a penalty if not more but ref Luke Pearce deemed it just a knock on.
For the past while I’ve been picking a pivotal moment from feature matches and harping on that to begin the writeup, but in this case I felt it necessary to go all the way to the kickoff, because Ireland’s tale of “what might have been” begins right there. It was an afternoon where yes, we made mistakes. Yes, we might have made better decisions at times. And yes, we probably deserved to end up on the losing side unlike seven days earlier.
But there seems to be such an abundance of negative feelings in the online Irish reaction to the performance that I have to pull it back. Obviously two defeats to start a Six Nations campaign is always going to be disappointing, but to simply focus on that without any context taken from how the 160 minutes transpired is not the way to go, especially when their conclusion is that the entire coaching staff isn’t fit for purpose.
The Welsh result has been litigated ad nauseum at this stage so let’s look at what we were feeling before this match kicked off. In my preview I was actually surprised the bookies only had the visitors winning by 5, especially as we were missing so many recognised leaders. I firmly believed we had a path to victory if we applied ourselves the right way, but I still thought France were in a much better place and should have denied us a losing BP.
Yet in the first half, we had 61% of the possession. And much like the near misses in the first minute, while we did struggle to break down an extremely well-drilled French wall of tacklers, we came within a blade or two of grass of establishing an 8 to 10 point lead of our own in our very first crack at them with a man down.
On that La Roux yellow card by the way, there seems to be some debate about it but I cannot imagine why. Of course it was intentional trip on Keith Earls. A player like him would have been embarrassed if it wasn’t! He nearly sold it but for me the direction in which he was running (one that’s going nowhere near where the ball is headed) betrayed him.
Also from the resulting lineout Marchand threw a dart over all of his forwards and once again Henderson had no luck getting his hand to it. If that sticks, it was a try. Instead it was a scrum the other way and the French were able to clear.
Back to our attacking, I see a lot of people saying we didn’t have much of a plan. Well, we did; it involved a lot of kicking - and I fear this could have been the actual cause of the negative vibes from green supporters. The “box-kick = bad” narrative has been oft debunked on these pages and I thought we were at very least matching our opposition in the bouts of kick tennis especially in the first half.
Sure, some went a bit far, and the French were having their own success with the ball especially when they went cross field towards our 22 on the West Stand side. But thanks mostly to the missile launcher that is James Lowe’s boot we were gaining a lot of ground ourselves and also many of the high balls were being chased well enough to win them back.
One such example saw Hugo Keenan, who further cemented himself in the 15 jersey by the way, catching his own kick and in following up Gibson-Park saw some space in the French 22 to pin them back for a lineout. Easy to say now in hindsight but I thought we had a decent shot instead to at make some hay with ball in hand before the French defence was able to set there.
But then our opposition came out on top with a bout of kick tennis giving them a lineout at our 22. We had been doing extremely well on their throw right from the very start - if anyone doubted what Paulie could bring to the table that was certainly put to bed here - and Tadhg Beirne in particular was getting in amongst the French jumpers.
For some reason, on this lineout, we chose not to contest. Was it because La Roux wasn’t a threat? Was it just to keep them honest by letting one go so we had more on the ground ready to stop a maul? Well whatever our reasons, they were able to set up some perfect crash ball courtesy of Fickou and from there, well, France “did France”.
What followed was a clinic in offloading during the tackle. When a team is in perfect sync with it, there’s very little you can do. Well - I say that, but as most have pointed out, Gibson-Park could definitely have done better with the last man and his “bite” definitely left their skipper Ollivon with an easy run-in to the line.
So just like that it was 7-3 to France a scoreline made all the more menacing by the fact they were a man down. And a couple of needless Irish penalties were to follow, one from Stander going off his feet and another from Healy finding himself trapped in a breakdown, with the latter allowing Jalibert to stretch the lead to seven at the break.
Taking the temperature of the Irish twitterati was never going to be pleasant, and although I really did believe we were in with a shout, the general consensus was that if anything the margin would get worse. And to be fair, the way the first few minutes on the second half went, that definitely looked like happening.
Although we got our exit kick from the restart away unblocked, it was a disappointing one from Lowe only reaching outside our 22. From the lineout, Marchand rampaged towards our tryline and seven points looked inevitable until Dupont drilled a pass off Willemse’s head so hard that the rebound went all the way over the dead ball line.
Two questions to ask here. Was this error just a mistake on France’s part and we should consider ourselves lucky, or was it more because they felt they had to hurry because they knew our goal line defence would be strong once it was allowed to settle? Second point - was Duponte relatively quiet throughout because it was an off day or was it more because we had a plan to keep him as covered as possible? While I know I’m probably swimming against the tide, I’m choosing to go for the latter in each case.
But still it was quite the let off and things didn’t get much better for us as first Billy Burns was forced to go off and not long afterwards there was a nasty clash of heads between Iain Henderson and Cian Healy, one which deserves a paragraph or two of its own.
I know there is an official HIA test and to the letter of the law, once it is passed, a player is free to go back on and I’m positive all of that was adhered to which is why the two players returned to the field later in the half. Still, I feel the spirit of these concussion laws should be such that no matter what the outcome of the test, given the optics of the head clash itself, neither should have taken any further part.
The reason is that up and down the country coaches can tell young lads getting into a similar situation something like “remember when Henderson and Healy had that collision against France? wellthey couldn’t play on, neither should you." But that’s just a sidebar to the main story; we can debate that another day.
Back to the action, France continued to exert some pressure and this was essentially their “purple patch”, although as the clock ticked towards past the 50 minute mark, they still hadn’t added to their total and again I felt we had our defending to thank as well as the pressure we were showing on their lineouts.
With the ball we were still kind of struggling, mostly only gaining ground by kicking behind them without them having too much trouble escaping. But once more it took a marginal incident to give Les Blues the chance they needed to strike.
Josh van der Flier had another great outing altogether, and as for Jamison Gibson-Park, while there were mistakes I don’t think he was nearly as bad as many made him out to be. But when they got in each other’s way unnecessarily at the back of a routine ruck at halfway, the French managed to put the ball in behind us and Lowe struggled to gather it, ending up fortunate that it went into touch.
But from the lineout it was Gael Fickou, whom I thought should have been Player of the Match instead of Dulin, that gave them more strong front foot ball and for the second week in a row, our opponents got five points during a penalty advantage which would certainly have been just three had it been called back. Again Lowe’s positioning was suspect here, but Jalibert’s quick thinking and a nice Dulin/Penaud combination provided the finish.
Now it was a 12 point lead, yet when Keith Earls was hit in the air by Ollivon from the restart, we had the rare opportunity of an attacking lineout deep in their territory. Ronán Kelleher was just on for Rob Herring and must have cringed when Ollivon rose to give Beirne a taste of his own medicine.
As for what happened next, I first want to remind you of every bit of bad luck I mentioned earlier. The block from Henderson which went straight to Villière. That same winger’s knock on which sure as hell looked deliberate. James Lowe’s boots barely kissing white blades of grass.
Many seem to discount this Kelleher try because of the luck involved. Sure, when Ollivon batted it down it couldn’t have sat up better for the Leinster hooker to gather and easily run to the line. But when you apply the Laws of Swings and Roundabouts, we bloody well earned that bounce in my book. And what’s more, Ronán also managed the kind of cut inside to make for an easier conversion of which his winger brother Cian would be proud.
Sure enough Ross Byrne slotted over the extra points and suddenly we had a sniff. The kick tennis continued and again we were holding our own pretty well until a high tackle gave the Leinster outhalf the opportunity to narrow the margin even further - that was an extremely well taken pressure kick that must put him in contention for starting against the Italians in two weeks.
Sadly for the final fifteen minutes, our own mistakes started to creep in once more. A very weary looking Cian Healy dropped a simple enough carry. Lowe kicked one out on the full, and on this occasion he really could have kept it in hand. Also our attempts to snaffle more French darts started to lead to penalties, one of which Jalibert failed to turn into three more points as instead it hit the post.
As the clock was winding down, our visitors, who don’t forget were chasing a first victory on our soil in a decade, were doing a decent job of pinning us back in our own half, although to be fair, our defending in those closing stages was very solid, especially from “finishers” like Will Connors.
There was also to be one more incident that can be filed under “if only…” Both Lowe and Gibson-Park took a lot of criticism on the day and in all fairness, the kind of kicking strategy we were bringing to the table did seem to go against their DNA. I also have to admit that I did find it odd that young Craig Casey wasn’t given a debut cameo towards the end even as the scores were close.
However, when a high ball was caught by Gibson-Park at his own 22, his back and forth offloading with Lowe along the touchline were so good and so "Super Rugby" that even their own players didn’t seem to able to keep up with them. And if Lowe hadn’t been hit just as he handed off to his scrum half, he could have kept the sequence going and the outcome might have been very very favourable.
But alas it was not to be. For a moment there we did look like we could be getting ourselves into a position to set up a possible repeat of Paris in 2018, but while that was 41 phases, here we could “only” muster 17 before it was turned over and the French were able to wrap things up.
And if anyone wants an indicator of the kind of game we put to them over 80 minutes, they can check out the celebrations of Galthié’s men after the final whistle. Maybe we didn’t appreciate that we had defied expectations to make a contest of this, but they certainly did.
Look - nobody is ever going to agree with a coach’s decisions but they are his to make, and having gone with his selection for Wales and given how that transpired, I couldn’t really fault too much about how we lined up for this one. It wasn’t good enough, but contrary to a bulk of the opinion I saw a lot of fight, a lot of planning, and a lot of bad luck.
Quick note on referee Luke Pearce - like I said I wasn’t wild about his failure to ping that deliberate knock on and perhaps the opposing defenses benefitted from a generous offside line, but still I thought his communication was good and I generally like the way they tend to let the packs go at it at the breakdown, once safety is kept in mind.
Looking further down the competition, the curmudgeons will no doubt be unhappy with anything we do against Italy in our next match yet for the rest of us it would be great to see the Caseys and the Bairds in action and I’m sure we will. We may not have started well, but if we can maybe look more towards 2023 and get some game time into future prospects, maybe by the end of this Six Nations will look more kindly on how things are going.
As for France, well it has to be their title to lose hasn’t it? 😜 JLP