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Tuesday 12 December 2017

It's all about control as French flop again

At halftime I turned to someone beside me and said that if Ireland played this way in September, they could win the World Cup.

Such was Ireland's control in this game, led once again by Man of the Match Johnny Sexton. At that stage, it was hard to see anywhere on the field where France were even matching Ireland.

How times have changed. Years ago we marvelled at France's often unstructured talents, when Les Bleus would often travel the length of the field interchanging passes seamlessly between backs and forwards. They were the magicians of the game.

On Saturday, we witnessed Saint Andre's master plan, to try and marry big cumbersome forwards with talented-looking backs and for 60 minutes France was simply awful.

LABORIOUS

Time after time the ball from their South African-born scrumhalf Rory Kocott was telegraphed and laborious, always seeming to check his options before passing deep to outhalf Camille Lopez, only for Lopez and others in the French backline to seek the refuge of the touchline.

The French backs never chased a kick with any gusto, never made a significant line break and relied on the occasional muscular surge from their go to man, centre Mathieu Bastareaud.

The problem for Ireland was that, despite all their dominance, they couldn't score, and every time they got into the French 22 the French either managed to drift offside or get their mitts on Ireland's ball and slow it down.

Johnny Sexton was showing us that despite a three-month layoff, he is the best out- half in the world, with a master class of variation and kicking, both at goal and out of hand.

Ireland won nearly all their re-starta because Sexton was inch-perfect and he used both sides of the field well, employing the height of his backline as he would use the forwards.

This tactic, together with moving the ball from deep early on, confused the French, who like their domestic teams just wanted to go from set piece to set piece.

Ireland were in complete control everywhere but on the scoreboard, where a lack of execution and some ill-discipline allowed the French to somehow stay in the game.

At the start of the second half, Ireland clearly upped the tempo and the next score would have probably put Ireland out of sight.

That should have happened and it was the only time Sexton fluffed his lines. His unsympathetic, head-high pass to the straight-running Jarod Payne saw a certain Irish try botched.

Against England, Ireland will need to take the few chances that will come their way. After Ireland had missed the chance for a comfortable last quarter, things started to turn and when France changed their whole front row, Ireland should have countered.

For the last 20 or so minutes the French started to dominate at scrum time, and their big replacement ball-carriers stated to make serious dents.

The French resurgence was marshalled by replacement scrumhalf Morgan Parra. Is Saint André so blind that he cannot see that Parra is the man to start from now on?

Para started to snipe around rucks and mauls and the French were suddenly all over the tiring Irish.

Jamie Heaslip left the field with a bruised back courtesy of a kidney kick from big French second row Pascal Pape, who was lucky just to see yellow.

On replay, it looked like a deliberate and cheap shot from the Frenchman, but at full speed he may just be given the benefit of the doubt. In my opinion if a player has to leave the field as the result of direct foul play then the culprit should join him.

With Heaslip gone, Sean O'Brien had to solider on, which he did manfully. It just shows how fit the modern players are when both O'Brien and Sexton looked full of running right to the end, Sexton a little battered and bruised from his rounds with Bastareaud.

UNSCATHED

France eventually scored the only try of the match when lock Romain Taofifenua crashed over as Rory Best was warming his heels on the bench.

From Schmidt's point of view, O'Brien, Sexton and Healy all came through the match largely unscathed, with only Heaslip a real concern.

Full-back Rob Kearney was excellent as was midfielder Robbie Henshaw, who bravely put his considerable frame in the way of the moving tank that was Bastareaud. Up front everybody got stuck in.

Areas of concern remain - a lack of cutting edge in the opposition 22, a lack of discipline and a scrum that can be too spasmodic.

It seems to be a two-horse race between England and Ireland. The main worry for Ireland will be matching England up front, but if anyone can come up with a plan to do that it's Schmidt. All in all, an excellent day's work.

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