Conor Murray, Ireland’s try scorer during their 19-9 win over France, said: ‘What matters is that we are still in the hunt for the title.’ Photograph: Ian Walton/Getty Images
This was a fitting scoreline given the many questions the Ireland head coach, Joe Schmidt, was asked on Saturday night about Ireland’s final match of the championship against England. The last time the men in white were in Dublin two years ago, they lost 19-9 on another occasion when the hosts weathered the conditions more adroitly than their opponents.
The prospect of a grand slam showdown may have died on the opening weekend of the Six Nations when Ireland lost in Scotland, but the title will be there to be won if Schmidt’s team beat Wales in the next round on a Friday night in Cardiff even if England go on to record a bonus-point victory against Scotland; another 10-point success may be enough to secure a third title in four years.
“We are still alive in the tournament and that is what matters,” the Ireland centre Garry Ringrose said. “There are aspects of the performance that we need to review, but we beat a very good French side and had to work hard for every point. We had a kick up the backside in the dressing room at half-time and got into the right areas after the interval.”
The faster pace of the international game is tempting teams to look for seven points from penalties rather than three. Wales did so twice against England and again in Scotland and, in the first-half here, Ireland three times declined kicks at goal for a greater harvest. They did fashion the only try of the match on 29 minutes from a penalty scrum, but their return of seven points was less than the nine on offer. After the interval they not only kicked every penalty within range but Johnny Sexton also dropped a goal to take the game away from France who, by then, were pinned in their own half having got on the wrong side of the referee, Nigel Owens.
France had been dominant in the opening 20 minutes, the swashbucklers of yesteryear, running and passing as if it were an exhibition match, freed from inhibition. They lacked a playmaker of Sexton’s aplomb and as mistakes multiplied and the drizzle started, so their discipline evaporated. “We stagnated,” their head coach, Guy Novès, said, “but the performance was not a backward step.”
Schmidt and every Irish player put forward for media interview commented on how France were a more complete team under Novès in defence and attack, but the visitors lacked a controlling influence. Once Sexton started to dictate play and then took the points on offer, the visitors became a lighter shade of blue. England, though, are not only more confident and fluent but possess the creative axis at 10 and 12 the French are striving for.
“We did not start well but grew into the game and became smarter in the second half,” Ireland’s try scorer, Conor Murray, said. “We beat a good French team, but there were parts of our game we were not happy with, such as holding on to the ball in their 22. What matters is that we are still in the hunt for the title and it will be a massive game in Cardiff. There is a lot more to come from us.”
While Sexton stood out for the composure and variety he brought, it was the manner in which Ireland’s pack subdued bigger opponents up front and at the breakdown that created the platform. France were unhappy with some of the referee’s decisions, but this season has been a story of narrow defeats to teams above them in the world rankings because they cannot yet seize the moment, over-excited when the line beckons.
They are not far away from becoming a force again and they have the opportunity to finish the tournament in credit with matches against Italy and Wales to come, but they lack the collective understanding of Ireland and England and make too many unforced errors. They counter-attacked with relish but struggled to create space off their own ball.
Ireland, in contrast, had Sexton prompting and cajoling. He created the position for the opening try by looping around Rob Kearney and kicking to France’s line where Keith Earls was denied a try by Noa Nakaitaci. Murray only had to wait two scrums for his try and he could have had two more in the remaining 10 minutes of the opening half.
England beckon as Ireland contemplate repeating Wales’ feat of 2013 when they not only denied the men in white a grand slam but snatched the title from them. First, though, they have to overcome Wales having lost in Cardiff in the championship only three times since 1983. “We won’t beat Wales by preparing for England,” the second-row Iain Henderson said. “It is a semi-final and we have to win it.”
Since you’re here …
… we’ve got a small favour to ask. More people are reading the Guardian than ever, but far fewer are paying for it. Advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. And unlike some other news organisations, we haven’t put up a paywall – we want to keep our journalism open to all. So you can see why we need to ask for your help. The Guardian’s independent, investigative journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we do it because we believe our perspective matters – because it might well be your perspective, too.
If everyone who reads our reporting, who likes it, helps to support it, our future would be much more secure.