Monday, February 14, 2022

FRANCE-30 IRELAND-24

STILL IN THE HUNT


Your challenge, if you choose to accept it, is to harp on the Irish outhalf debate without sounding like you have a provincial bias.

Good luck with that! You've got literally decades of history behind you, going all the way back to Ollie Campbell v Tony Ward in my lifetime, and probably well beyond that too. Sure, we get parochial over most matters especially since the game went pro, but that 10 jersey is the one that divides us the most.

I mean - from the moment it was announced that Johnny Sexton was unavailable for this crucial Six Nations clash, there was very little sense of what would be a very obvious reaction like "Wow - we'll really miss someone of his once in a generation talent but hey, we still have good options out there to get the job done so let's get behind the team anyway."

What we got instead was doubt over Andy Farrell's chosen replacement, maybe it should have gone to someone else, and there was often even criticism that alternatives weren't played more often in the past. All of which basically meant that if someone like myself dares to suggest we'd have been better off with our captain, then it all has to be down to the colour of my "goggles".

So I guess I'm on a hiding to nothing when I writeup the match having watched it a second time and I may as well say this regardless of what people might think. Do I believe we'd have made up the 7 points we were short of victory if Sexton were on the pitch? Yes, I do, absolutely. Does that mean I believe Joey Carbery was a disaster we can't possibly win anything without our captain? No absolutely not. Make of that what you will.

This was one those classic glass half empty/full Irish displays that really needs a 2000+ word article to properly go over what happened over the 80 minutes before trying to offer an objective view of how that leaves our chances of getting something out of the 2022 Guinness Six Nations. So I guess I'd best get on with scribbling my version...

0-10

With 10 being such a contentious selection issue, 9 will never be far behind although whatever your province of choice may be, it's hard to argue Jamison Gibson-Park has slotted right in to this more attacking approach Andy Farrell & co have brought to the team.

But in a match that was always going to require focus and execution for the entire 80 minutes, his box kick clearance after the kickoff didn't have a whole lot of distance on it and when the bounce was cushioned by a piece of equipment just off the pitch, the ball sat up nicely for the French to take a quick throw and in some ways it's a credit to our defence's reputation that they chose to get play started right away.

Now it's not like they caught us completely off guard here and scored immediately,; our tackling cordon did have time to regroup for a few phases. Yet after harping on our own 9/10 combination, when Ntamack brought it to a gap between Jack Conan and Mack Hansen, as the former grabbed him he managed to slip an absolutely magnifique offload past two more Irish players into the path of Antoine Dupont who then had an easy finish.

[UPDATE - seeing a lot of debate over whether the final pass was forward - not an issue for me FWIW, no need to go over the whole "where it went out of the hands" debate for the millionth time, this was marginal]

In a match like this, things like kick chasers applying pressure straight from a kick off, a quick throw, and having the confidence to chuck a no look pass, can all be game changers on their own, but when they happen in quick succession, it can really knock you off your feet and that's exactly what the French did to us here. We barely had time to catch our breath and we were 7 points down.

Still, we managed to get after our own restart and at the very next breakdown Ronan Kelleher was able to steal it back which gave us a chance to put some phases together. The highlight of these was a nice jinking run by Carbery which got us into the 22 but eventually the play broke down with a knockon and again France were keen to make the most of transition by fly hacking it all the way back to our end of the pitch.

JGP did well here to sprint and regather and once more we looked like we were able to settle, but on a James Ryan carry he found himself isolated which allowed last week's hat-trick hero Villiere to jackle his way to a penalty which Jaminet easily slotted to bring the lead into double digits with only 6 minutes on the clock.

We may consider the few minutes either side of halftime to be "championship minutes", but at this stage I wondered had we already seen the ones that were to decide rugby's greatest one for 2022.

However, on a Six Nations preview podcast we recorded a few weeks ago, I said Mack Hansen was a similar player to James Lowe in that they tended to look for the direct route to a positive outcome whenever they had the ball. Well I doubt you can possibly have a more direct route than what happened next!!!

Carbery's remit on the restart was always going to be to make it "contestable" and there was certainly a good hang time on it as it was heading into the French 22 where it looked like it would go straight to Jaminet. But Mr Hansen very much had other ideas.

You can see he had his eyes on it from the moment it left Carbery's boot and it was simply a case of him wanting it more than the French full back as he took it in his stride and coasted over the line. It was as if the match itself needed course correcting and we duly provided it. Tack on a nice conversion from Joey and we're back within three.

Normally I'd do this writeup format in twenty minute bursts but it's pretty clear why I'm doing it this way here! So much going on in that opening ten.

10-HT

For the next half hour the match evolved into the kind of contest we were expecting, with the two sets of well-drilled defences holding sway making it such that even the smallest error was going to be punished.

Slowly but surely we got the opportunity to show our attacking approach, which seemed to revolve around Carbery putting up high balls for his wingers, particularly Conway who is really good in this area, to win the ball back. But while we were still able to find our way down to their end of the pitch, there were niggly little things like knockons and overthrown lineouts halting our progress.

Meanwhile our hosts were still looking for ways to catch our tacklers off guard and when they got down to our end they kept proving just that little bit more effective. And I mean just a little bit, because while we did ship an alarming amount of penalties in different ways, including ones for not releasing, offside and a scrum infringement all of which allowed Jaminet to stretch their lead to 19-7, each of those scores came with a period of advantage which our defending was able to shut down easily enough each time.

It also didn't help that we had to go to our bench in the first half as Dan Sheehan had to be brought on for Rónan Kelleher at the 26th minute, although our pack overall was finding things much more difficult than the previous Saturday, with the likes of Willemse getting the better of us more often than we'd have liked.

That scrum penalty right at the end of the half came after a Hugo Keenan kick went out over the end line unlike an earlier one from Jaminet that the rugby gods decided should stay in play - sorry for the cliché but those are the kind of "fine margins" that will always be critical in matches like this.

So the lead was 12 at the break and things definitely looked bleak; I wasn't exactly giving up but I did feel something drastic needed to change if we were to get our side of the scoreboard moving...

40-60

We started the second half still struggling to cope with the Shaun Edwards-inspired line speed, with apparently the only option being going high over the top (little chip into the space behind possibly a risk too far?) and when JGP and Conway got their timing wrong leading to the latter being offside, Jaminet was able to smash over a long range effort to give the home side what turned out to be a very handy 15-point cushion.

If it wasn't for the earlier bit of Mack magic, I'd have said what happened next for Ireland was the most straightforward try possible off a restart at this level. Andrew Porter jackled a trademark penalty before the French could exit, giving us our first opportunity for a lineout 5m out, and when Josh van der Flier peeled off the maul to fall over the line moments after the dart, all of sudden we knew we were able to hurt them after all.

This put a pep in our step and Carbery proceeded to lead us right the way back up the pitch from the next restart, and this time Villiere's attempt to recreate his earlier jackle went the other way allowing us to put another kick into the 22. Our lineout execution was a bit sloppy here again, but a strong Furlong carry soon got us back on track.

And as if to show Dupont wasn't the only pesky 9 on the pitch that day, Gibson-Park spotted that the towering Willemse was facing him as he took it from a breakdown and he proceeded to easily nip past him giving him a clear path to the line. Hey presto we had whittled that lead all the way back down to just the 1.

That kind of red zone opportunism is why JGP is in the team, but unfortunately his box kicking yips struck again after the restart and Mack Hansen could only knock it on into touch outside the 22. From the scrum they proceeded to work their way into our 22 with the help of some mercurial footwork from Penaud, although our defending once more seemed to stand up to the danger.

Pity our exiting and ball protection at the breakdown still had issues however, for as we tried to set up a clearance a stray boot at the breakdown seemed to send it back to the French side and this was the kind of transition situation they revel in, with prop Cyril Baille applying an excellent finish moments later.

Still though, we were left with a sliver of hope as Jaminet proved he was human by pushing the conversion wide leaving us within a converted try going into the final quarter.

60-FT

The endgame began with what I'd like to call The Curious Case Of The Vanishing Advantage.

Remember how relatively easily we finished off our first lineout in the French 22 earlier? Well when Angus Gardner stuck his arm out for an illegal ruck entry at halfway it looked like we had a good chance to have another go. Yet when Gibson-Park kicked forward into their 22 a phase or two afterwards, Dupont retrieved and Gardner informed the pleading Irish forwards that the advantage was in fact over.

I calmly waited until my rewatch because I thought there was a chance he had it as a scrum advantage but it turns out he clearly indicates a side entry. Plus I hear no call of "advantage over" although even if he had, although I know it's always at his discretion we could have a long debate about that. My "hot take" is that perhaps something was being said into his ear about another matter, like something the TMO had checked, and possibly the ref's attention was distracted enough to forget that there was a pending advantage, especially with the play going on right in front of him.

Whatever the reason, I know there's no guarantee we'd have scored but the way this second half had gone we surely would have been in with a shout. Doesn't take away from all the errors and indiscipline we showed throughout the match of course, but is definitely worth bringing up nonetheless.

French fans may have been more concerned when their skipper Dupont tried to follow up his own kick ahead only to run into Tadhg Beirne, although this time the ref got it right in saying there was nothing in it.

Eventually Beirne was the reason we finally got our big chance in the 22 when he scooped up a Ringrose kick that had been blocked and managed to land the cheekiest 5022 you'll ever see which put us in just the position we wanted. Sadly, Iain Henderson's fingertips just couldn't get to Sheehan's dart which allowed the French to tidy up.

So the next five minutes or so were very tense with possession going back and forth around midfield. We still struggled to retain possession on the ground while our defence was doing ok keeping the home team out.

Eventually skipper James Ryan had a decision to make in the 73rd minute when the French tried too hard for another pilfer and got pinged. It was always in a kickable position but should have gone for the corner as we were six point down?

Well going back to the "did we miss Sexton" argument, it wasn't Ryan's decision that bothered me so much as how long it took him to make it. This was a 50/50 call in my book - of course only a 7 pointer would get us directly ahead but we had just messed up a lineout so the safer 3 would at least help cement a losing BP plus there was time to get back for another go.

And the longer you hesitate, the more sense it makes to play it safe so in the end I guess we were better off and Joey was able to slot the kick and get us within three. Hopefully the experience will stand to James so he'll be able to anticipate these scenarios in the future.

There then followed more tentative kicking back and forth with some scrappy moments in between until Gael Fickou tried a little kick over the top which paid off putting them on the front foot in our 22. Under the posts the French had just been awarded a penalty when they got it to Jaminet who powered home over the line.

Well, that's that, I thought at the time. But hang on...was there a grounding? Gardner wasn't sure and went with an onfield decision of no try and through the replays which followed I actually think it was the full back's own arm that prevents it from finding grass although the brilliant effort of Dan Sheehan to hold him up can't be discounted and they went back for the penalty.

It was no surprise that the home crowd wasn't impressed but it was definitely the right call and when Jaminet slotted the easy 3 we were still within 7. Our only hope now was to make something happen straight off the restart, and Iain Henderson was more than happy to oblige as he plucked the ball from the French catcher Cretin.

By now, curiously enough, one JC had replaced another as Irish outhalf and it was down to Jack Carty to lead us in our effort to make the most of this final chance with the clock heading into the final minute. Of course I only say "curiously" because of the late stage, not that there's any lack of faith on my part that he can get a job done, I've said it many a time on these very pages before.

Yet even if Sexton were available, a repeat of his last gasp DG heroics four years before was no good in this scenario. We had to take some risks and while Carty is well able to make them work, in this case a long pass to Henshaw on the wing was not only a shade forward but it was knocked on and our chance was gone.

HARPIN POINTS

So - is the glass half full or half empty? Definitely half full in my book. It wasn't so much that we got off to a horrible start ourselves rather the home team knew the threat we were presenting them with and raised their game above and beyond. Then, having been 10 and then in the second half as much as 15 points behind, we clawed it back to just the one before clinging on to a bonus point that HAS to be seen as consolation no matter how disappointed we may be.

One last time I will point out that Sexton was indeed missed, but while the levels of accuracy he not only brings himself but demands of those around him were lacking, we saw enough in Joey Carbery to suggest that with game time he can improve in those areas himself. Same goes for James Ryan when it comes to leadership.

The ball retention thing is a separate issue however. Looking further down the tournament I can certainly see the English looking to exploit that in Twickenham. The Doris/JVDF/Conan axis was shown to be vulnerable for the first time in this series so it will be up to the coaching ticket to decide whether it's a blip of if changes need to be made - it's not like we're lacking in options well beyond this matchday 23 so I wouldn't be too concerned.

And when you look at the Six Nations table it is far from bad news for Ireland, even though we now sit in 3rd. Both teams above us have played Italy, yet we still have as many tries as France and one more than England with the Azurri coming to Dublin in a fortnight. Of course we'll have to look at our wider squad with Twickers in mind, but we also want to make a serious statement going into the final two rounds.

Basically the most important question we should be asking ourselves after this highly entertaining test match is whether or not we're still in the hunt for the 2022 Six Nations Championship. And while Les Bleus deserved this victory and are certainly setting the pace, the answer still has to be a resounding yes. JLP

#ShoulderToShoulder


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