Sexton’s brilliance can’t hide Ireland’s Paris flaws

Sexton’s brilliance hides Ireland’s Paris flaws
3 February 2018; Jonathan Sexton of Ireland celebrates kicking his last second drop goal to win the game during the NatWest Six Nations Rugby Championship match between France and Ireland at the Stade de France in Paris, France. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

By Phil Rice

The relief and euphoria afforded by the outstanding match-winning drop goal from Ireland’s talisman Johnny Sexton, should not be permitted to disguise the shortcomings of last Saturday’s Irish performance in Paris.

The inability of Ireland to even threaten the French line during the 80 minutes must have caused major concerns for Joe Schmidt and his coaching team. Credit to the French for their outstanding defence but the Irish attack was blunt and predictable.

Crash ball tactics are of limited value at the highest level of modern international rugby. Conditions didn’t favour attacking rugby but with the limited opportunities that France had, their attacks looked more threatening than Ireland’s.

The French dragged Ireland into an arm wrestle and to their credit the Irish forwards gave as good as they got, but we simply lacked the cutting-edge necessary to break down France’s dogged defence.

Bundee Aki got over the gainline more often than not, but nothing came from the ensuing rucks. There were no angled supporting runs and our attacks were too predictable.

The calls for the inclusion of Jordan Larmour will no doubt reach a crescendo this week. In fairness, Rob Kearney had a fine game with only one dropped high ball in difficult conditions.

Sexton’s brilliance hides Ireland’s Paris flaws
3 February 2018; Jonathan Sexton of Ireland celebrates with teammates after kicking the match winning drop goal during the NatWest Six Nations Rugby Championship match between France and Ireland at the Stade de France in Paris, France. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Modern defences are so quick to close down unimaginative attacks, very often counter attacks and broken play afford the best scoring chances, as was proved last Saturday.

However, Ireland are obsessed with relying on high kicks as their main counter attacking strategy and that is where perhaps Larmour might provide a more effective alternative threat.

Saturday’s game against Italy would seem to offer the most logical opportunity to give the 20-year-old his first cap.

Not to underestimate the threat that Italy pose, but Ireland must take this chance to play a more expansive game and create some confidence in their back-play.

The experience of Conor Murray and Sexton was crucial in those concluding minutes. This was reflected by the fact that the only substitutes not used were half-backs Luke McGrath and Joey Carbery.

Commenting after the game, Murray said: “Obviously Johnny will get the plaudits and rightly so but the forwards, getting all those phases, deserve massive credit.”

Paris is a difficult place to win as Ireland’s record there testifies, and we mustn’t overreact to the last-gasp victory on Saturday. A number of the forwards performed with great credit.

Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan and CJ Stander were outstanding, while replacement Dan Leavy took his opportunity with both hands.

Josh van der Flier’s destructive game was missed during the second half. Sadly he appears to have picked up a long-term injury and will not feature again in this Six Nations.

Peter O’Mahony had a quiet game for him and his line-out expertise was surprisingly under used. John Ryan began well after his introduction but was destroyed in the scrum that led to the crucial penalty miss, which gave Ireland the breathing space to snatch victory.

Perhaps Larmour’s St. Andrews College team-mate Andrew Porter might be given the tight-head place on the bench for the Italy game. Joe Schmidt hinted at his concerns about the impact of the bench when he spoke after the game.

Sexton’s brilliance hides Ireland’s Paris flaws
3 February 2018; Bundee Aki of Ireland is tackled by Kevin Gourdon of France during the NatWest Six Nations Rugby Championship match between France and Ireland at the Stade de France in Paris, France. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

He said: “As new players are introduced to the game it does tend to lose a bit of shape and that’s a challenge for us and we’ll keep working on that.”

Schmidt continued: “You have the first game of the championship and you have your baseline that you can springboard from, where we can be better through the second and third quarter. To a degree we saved our best bit for last.”

Forty-one phases under extreme pressure leading up to Sexton’s piece of magic, certainly demonstrated the confidence that is gained from an eight-match winning streak.

Ireland ought to extend that successful run further this week but must take the opportunity to provide a more dynamic and threatening attack.

Their remaining opponents won’t have been frightened by what they witnessed in Paris. Italy may have been heavily beaten by England at the weekend but there were signs that Conor O’Shea is creating a capable side.

Sexton’s brilliance hides Ireland’s Paris flaws
3 February 2018; Tadhg Furlong of Ireland is tackled by Paul Gabrillagues, left, and Guilhem Guirado of France during the NatWest Six Nations Rugby Championship match between France and Ireland at the Stade de France in Paris, France. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Much of England’s scoring came from errors and needless self-inflicted damage that O’Shea can work on.

The Italian back division looked particularly dangerous when going forward. The lessons learned from each game during the course of the Six Nations will be crucial to a team’s ultimate success.

Ireland will need to tighten up their defence and not allow the opposition as much room as they did for the French try. Stockdale looked good going forward but he still has work to do on his defence.

The Irish assault on the Six Nations is still on track, if only just. But a big improvement will be needed, particularly in attack, if they are to keep their hopes alive of a showdown for the title at Twickenham on St. Patrick’s Day.


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