The longest Six Nations finally reached its conclusion in Paris on Saturday evening as France hosted Ireland in the Championship decider. Following England’s bonus point win in Italy, both teams knew that they had the chance of winning the tournament, but that England could also still win the tournament depending on the result.
It was France who got the better start, as Gaël Fickou’s fancy footwork saw him break down the left touchline and feed the supporting Antoine Dupont for the opening try, converted by Romain Ntamack. The Irish began attacking and Hugo Keenan almost scored in the corner, but was illegally denied by Anthony Bouthier, who received a yellow card. The French defence frustrated Ireland for much of the 10 minutes though, until Cian Healy crashed over from short range on his 100ᵗʰ cap. Seton added a penalty, and the it was time for Ireland to lose a man to the bin as Calean Doris conceded a penalty try by tripping François Cros as he chased a kick into the in-goal. The fly halves traded penalties and the French witheld one last Irish attack on the stroke of halftime to hold a 17-13 lead at the break.
As in the first half, it was the French who struck first after the restart, with Dupont collecting Fickou’s ship down the wing and playing the ball inside to Ntamack, who went on to add 2 penalties. Robbie Henshaw gave the Irish hope with a solo effort to score in the corner, which Sexton converted, but with 10 minutes left, Ntamack collected his own chip over the defence and fed Virimi Vakatawa to secure the victory, though Jacob Stockdale scored a consolation try at the death for a final score of 35-27.
Defeat consigned the Irish to 3ʳᵈ, while France’s margin of victory was not enough to leapfrog England and they had to settle for the runner-up spot.
Jacob Stockdale’s place in the Irish XV is seriously under risk. The Ulster wing burst onto the scene but has struggled of late, and looks highly unlikely to win the 11 shirt back any time soon, such has been the form of Hugo Keenan.
Stockdale’s attacking threat was minimal in this game, but he also showed that his hands aren’t reliable enough, getting lucky with one knock on in his 22 that was missed by the officials but then quickly gifting the French an opportunity with another fumble, which resulted in the penalty try.
The Irish have a highly talented wing not even in the squad at the moment in the form of James Lowe, and if he were brought into the XV then Andrew Conway could move to fullback to create a dangerous back 3.
I don’t expect Andy Farrell to make changes straight away, as the continued selection of Murray and Sexton has already shown that he is faithful to the players he has worked with in recent years, but Stockdale needs to repay that faith quickly.
When Ireland look back at this game, they will rue their performance at the lineout. A potent weapon back in the days of Donncha O’Callaghan and Paul O’Connell, the set piece faltered at some key moments in this match, especially when they got into good positions. And then on some occasions when the lineout was OK, they could not get the maul going after and found themselves getting turned over deep in the French 22.
The Irish pack is full of quality, but is going through a reset at hooker and still settling on its second row pairing. They need to get this settled soon in order to have time to build the trust and cohesion that all the best teams have.
Until then, Ireland will have to find other ways to defeat their rivals.
Room to improve
It’s a good job for France that Ireland’s lineout play wasn’t up to par because they gifted the Irish too many opportunities with poor discipline.
In total, the French gave away 14 penalties during the match and were lucky that Anthony Bouthier’s yellow card was (correctly, in my opinion) adjudged as just a penalty rather than a penalty try.
A number of the penalties were coming at the breakdown and you can be sure that Shaun Edwards will be working hard to improve their discipline here, as the poor discipline was undoing all their great defensive work.
Right now, the French look formidable. If they can sort out their discipline, they will look near-unbeatable.