Outstanding Ireland Despatch France

Ireland 32 v 19 France

Ireland ended France’s run of 14 straight wins and established themselves as front runners for the championship in a gripping, thrilling Test match. Hype is often a difficult beast to tame, but this was a match that fully lived up to its billing, full of commitment, relentless physicality, supreme levels of skill, and a dollop of controversy. Ireland showed exactly why they are ranked number one in the world with a near-faultless display, sealing a bonus point and sending France home empty-handed. It was a ruthlessly efficient Irish performance, as they were largely able to blunt France’s attacking flair. Ireland demonstrated that they aren’t just contenders for this year’s World Cup; they are the favourites. It was an exhilarating contest, an afternoon of pure sporting theatre played in front of a sizzling atmosphere. The French deserve plaudits for being part of such a blockbuster, but these will be tough wounds to lick away.

The game began in semi-comical fashion, with James Lowe’s early clearance kick breaking the spider camera that hovers over the pitch. It may have pricked some of the early tension, but the game quickly thundered into life, with the physicality off the charts, Ireland competing hard at every ruck, seeking to deny France any quick ball. Thomas Ramos provided the first points of the game with a penalty, but not long after, he made a complete hash of Lowe’s kick through, gifting Ireland a 5-metre line out. France dealt with the initial drive well, and after a period of concerted pounding from the Irish forwards, Andrew Porter was brilliantly held up over the line by his opposite number, Cyril Baille. However, Ireland roared back, Hugo Keenan picking a superb line and racing onto the impressive Finlay Bealham’s inside ball as Ireland cleverly dummied their signature wrap play. Keenan blasted over, and Jonny Sexton provided the extras, giving Ireland a 7-3 lead.

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France started to enjoy a prolonged spell of possession but were met by an immovable green wall. Ireland’s line speed was immense all afternoon, their intensity unrelenting, while their individual decision-making was excellent, players identifying danger and snuffing it out. France kept plugging away and were eventually rewarded when Ramos fired over his second penalty of the afternoon, narrowing the deficit to a point. Ireland’s defence looked impenetrable at this point, and you felt it would require something magical to break it. Step forward, Damian Penaud. France chose to counter-attack from their own 22 after mopping up Mack Hansen’s chip kick, Ramos feeding Penaud, who brilliantly identified where the space was, gliding inside the drifting Irish defence. Anthony Jelonch ran a superb support line to take Penaud’s offload before dexterously returning the ball to the speedster, who scorched over the line. It was a stunning score befitting a match of such magnitude.

Penaud’s magic was undone as France committed the cardinal sin of failing to deal with the restart, gifting Ireland the ball back. Garry Ringrose fed Lowe with a superb, flat pass, and the winger produced an unbelievable, acrobatic finish. Importantly, referee Wayne Barnes gave it as a try on field, and the TMO failed to provide conclusive evidence otherwise. Footage from a different angle at half-time showed Lowe’s foot grazing the grass, something the TMO missed. France may have felt aggrieved, but minutes later, they were relieved when Barnes decided to only give prop Uini Atonio a yellow card for a shoulder to the head. While Barnes’s decision was undoubtedly a talking point, especially with Robbie Herring failing his HRA afterwards, his communication behind the decision was crystal clear.

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Ireland’s pressure was relentless; the accuracy of their clear-outs providing them with constant quick ball. France defended valiantly, but the pressure eventually told when Porter burrowed over for Ireland’s third try, Sexton slotting the conversion as Ireland moved into the lead. Ireland were at it again minutes later, almost going the distance in a lung-busting passage of play started by Mack Hansen, who was popping up all over the pitch. It was France who scored the next points, though, Ramos striking over a long-range penalty to drag them within three points.

However, there was no let-up for France, as Hansen’s intercept and Keenan’s subsequent kick-through almost resulted in Hansen going over, only stopped by an astonishing cover tackle by Antoine Dupont, who showed bear-like strength to hold up the winger. Dupont almost botched his hard work a moment later, feeding Jelonch a deeply unsympathetic pass that he knocked on, gifting Ireland a 5-metre scrum. Ireland pounded away, with the excellent Connor Murray almost sneaking over twice, but the French defence held firm. Sexton ensured Ireland didn’t depart empty-handed, slotting a penalty that gave Ireland a 22-16 lead after an incredible, breathtaking half of rugby.

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The second half may not have matched the excessive excitement of the first, but it was fraught with thrilling tension. The half began with a kicking battle, but a brief, frantic period saw Tadhg Beirne head off injured and Ramos miss an opportunity to narrow the gap with a penalty. France were notably more proactive at the breakdown, and Ireland started to slip off a few tackles, with the slippery Penaud causing problems. Sexton followed Beirne off injured in the fiftieth minute, a huge blow for Ireland, and you wondered if the momentum was going to swing France’s way. But Ireland started to edge the kicking battle, with Keenan bringing Ireland an attacking platform with a superb 50/22. It’s a testament to the match that even the kick tennis was engaging!

Ireland enjoyed a spell of possession in the French 22, but once again, the French defence was stubborn, and they had to make do with Ross Byrne’s penalty, which stretched the lead to 9 points. France hit back with their own prolonged spell of possession, but Ireland’s defence was equally determined. Ramos popped over a drop goal to bring France back within a converted score, setting up a dramatic final twenty minutes. It was good game management from Ramos, but in hindsight, it represented a huge psychological coup for the Irish defence. France were guilty of overplaying in the middle of the pitch, a surprise considering they kicked more ball than any other side in world rugby last year.

Ireland started to turn the screw with their kicking game, with Byrne putting in a series of probing kicks that continually forced France backwards. The French wingers could be accused of being too flat at points, something Byrne exploited excellently. Ireland’s bench significantly impacted the game, with Byrne and Craig Casey controlling the game brilliantly while replacement prop Tom O’Toole made a series of eye-catching carries. France struggled to get the ball off Ireland, and as the phases mounted, so did the French’s fatigue levels. Ireland’s bonus point try was created by a wonderful pass out of contact by Caelan Doris, feeding Garry Ringrose, who bounced off Matthieu Jalibert with some explosive power to score. Ringrose’s try sealed the game for Ireland, who held on comfortably, their intensity never wavering.

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For Ireland, it was no less than they deserved for a sublime performance. They never gave France an easy moment while showing impeccable discipline throughout. There were heroes in green all over the pitch, with Keenan having another stormer at full-back and James Ryan providing further evidence he’s back to his formidable best. The scrum battle never materialised, but in the few we saw, Finlay Bealham was rock solid, while Connor Murray produced an immense performance, especially considering his personal circumstances. Special mention must go to Caelan Doris, who carried like a man possessed, while he was a perpetual menace at the breakdown all afternoon. Where is the weakness in this Ireland side?

France were brave and committed, defending exceptionally well for large portions of the game. Thibaud Flament put in a gargantuan stint in the second row, following up his strong performance against Italy, making 26 tackles, while Charles Ollivon was similarly busy, and Penaud was a permanent threat all afternoon. France may rue not kicking more as they struggled to gain territory and found the Irish defence typically unyielding. Incredibly, France spent under a minute in Ireland’s 22 all-game; comparatively, the Irish spent almost ten minutes of the match camped in France’s 22. Defeat will be a bitter pill to swallow, but it may end up being an important lesson for them ahead of the World Cup. With both sides on the same side of the World Cup draw, the salivating prospect of a rematch looms. In the meantime, can anyone stop Ireland from romping to the Grand Slam?

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