France 20-22 Ireland: Lessons Learned from Six Nations Clash
Ireland sealed the 2014 Six Nations title with a nail-shredding win over France in Paris.
It was the fitting end to a glittering career for Brian O’Driscoll, who adds a second championship to his CV as his last act in an Irish jersey.
Ireland scored three tries to France’s two and had a forward pass in the last two minutes to thank for a final French try being ruled out by referee Steve Walsh—who might have as many pints of Guinness raised to him on Saturday night as the outgoing hero of Irish rugby.
The trophy is Ireland’s, the fairytale ending belongs to O’Driscoll, and these are the final lessons from the final game of what has been a riveting installment of the old championship.
Plumtree’s Pack Is a Powerhouse
The Irish forwards have markedly stepped up their game in this Six Nations. Their mauling play from a solid lineout has proved one of the most potent weapons of any side in the tournament.
And their scrum has passed every test thrown at it. In the first half in Paris, they took the French scrum to pieces, and loosehead Thomas Domingo was lucky not to receive a yellow card after three warnings from referee Steve Walsh for wilting under the pressure of Irish tighthead Mike Ross.
The Irish replacements struggled late on, but the first string was stronger than ever up front.
All credit must go to new forwards coach John Plumtree, who has turned them into a pack that is capable of mixing it up with anyone.
France Find Their Bosh but Not Their Brains
Philippe Saint-Andre picked a huge pack and served up a powerful centre pairing in Mathieu Bastareaud and Gael Fickou.
But their power with ball in hand couldn't make up for poor organisation when Ireland attacked. Ireland's two scores in the first 30 minutes exposed France's defensive disarray.
The hole on the left side of the ruck where Andrew Trimble burst through to score Ireland’s second try was the width of two double-decker buses.
France were also caught with forwards against backs for Ireland's third when Trimble exposed the mismatch and broke free in the build-up to Sexton's second try.
While France gave a much-improved performance in attack, they still have a lot of work to do to become a coherent, consistent side.
Sexton Shows Good, Bad and Ugly
It seems churlish to pick out a player who scored twice and ended his game on a stretcher.
Poor kicking displays from Jonny Sexton are rare, but when they come around, they can have a grave effect on the Irish performance.
The fly-half scored a try in the first half, but with the boot he was wayward. His kicking from hand failed to earn Ireland the territory and field position that he secured for them against Wales.
Allied to that, he missed his conversion and fluffed an easy penalty that would have given Ireland a two-point lead at the break.
His second try gave him a conversion in front of the sticks, which he nearly fluffed. However, he showed the mental fortitude to nail his next attempt, a penalty that made it 22-13 to Ireland and ultimately sealed the title.
If you turn the clock back to November, Sexton missed the penalty that would have ensured victory over New Zealand in Dublin.
The evidence is mounting that he struggles with the boot when the heat is on.
Walsh Blows Hot and Cold
Some odd decisions from Steve Walsh peppered this game. In the first half, he surprisingly warned Thomas Domingo that his next scrummage offence would result in a yellow card, after the ref had pinged him three times already.
Few players get that many lives before taking a seat in the sin bin, but Walsh was lenient on the loosehead prop.
He then awarded France a try when it was clear on the replay that Dimitri Szarzewski dropped the ball in the act of scoring. Rather than use the TV replay available to him, Walsh gave the try there and then.
He somewhat redeemed himself with the decision to rule out a French try at the death. He spotted the potential forward pass, used the replay to confirm it and made the correct call.
Nevertheless, this sort of inconsistency from a referee must have coaches pulling their hair out.