The good news yesterday was that the weather opened up just enough to ensure some quality action at the Aviva Stadium. The bad news for Ireland was that more misfires in defense and attack proved costly in a narrow 13-15 loss to a French side who deserved the test match win.
It is always a bit raw to post a blog immediately after a test match loss. Ireland’s effort and work rate was never in question but yesterday provided more evidence of the work that Andy Farrell and coaching staff need to do on the training paddock to address the flaws of the opening two rounds.
Attacking game plan is unclear
A picture speaks a thousand words but this opening minute image has stuck with me since the game concluded. Ireland’s lineout winning an early steal; the ball is distributed to Billy Burns and there is an Ireland overlap with Keenan looking to join the attacking line.
It is early in the proceedings. Billy Burns choses to launch the aerial bomb. An opportunity lost here but it signifies the mindset yesterday from Ireland. When an opportunity like this arose, Ireland were reluctant to go for the juggler. They went with Joe Schmidt prototype, aerial bomb and look for the French mistake to create an attacking platform. The run chase was a bit mixed too.
It is a worrying development here. The team not playing what is in front of them. France defensive setup cold, it was an opportunity to create with ball in hand. Opportunity lost. France let off the hook as Dulin started to dominate those aerial bombs.
James Lowe try chance
A lovely passage of play from Ireland in the lead up to this opportunity. Good ball carries, fast ruck ball and space was created on the outside. Heads up rugby. Hugo Keenan hits the line so well and is bearing down into the twenty-two. This snapshot shows where Hugo Keenan offloads the pass to James Lowe on the wing.
Does Keenan pass too early here? No French player has committed to the tackle on the full back. Gael Fickou is scrambling in defensive coverage. Keenan’s pace and Keith Earls inside option for an offload may have paid dividends here. Lowe’s attempt is admirable but he is left with plenty to do. His foot goes into touch but that final pass was just off for me. Small margins.
Ireland’s promising start deserved a try and if this was scored, France may have started to ask questions of themselves and shrug the shoulders. A pivotal moment in the test match for me with France down to fourteen players. Cue France to take their opportunity with fourteen men.
Defensive setup issues exploited
Gael Fickou’s contribution to the opening French try cannot be understated here. In tricky conditions (greasy ball), his ability to secure the loose pass is pivotal in this score. Rhys Ruddock is struggling for pace in the Fickou mismatch.
Gibson-Park has a decision to make, either stay outside or come in and look to take man / ball. He does never unfortunately. Fickou offloads to Ollivon and the rest as they say is history.
For France, it is a superb score down a man. For Ireland, the defensive setup is out of synch but it is also raising questions on the cover defense too given Fickou vs. Ruddock mismatch.
Ireland defensive cover exposed again
Penaud scores the decisive second French try. In truth, France should have scored only for Dupont / Willemse to get in each other’s way immediately upon the restart. The photo here is when Penaud evades the on-rushing James Lowe’s tackle.
Ed Byrne makes a valiant effort to prevent the try but unfortunately, the defensive cover is pretty bare. If you look closely on the photo, there is a defensive setup issue, at least four players on the other wing taken out of the play by the pass from Jalibert which is an astute move, exposes Ireland static defensive line.
Lowe will be the first person to know that he needs to make that tackle but the defensive coverage is again exposed. Simon Easterby and the team need to sit down and review where improvements can be made.
Four tries conceded have come from teams looking to spread the ball out wide, it would suggest issues in defensive alignment in the middle of the park. A super score from Penaud and it gave the French some breathing space.
Kelleher try provides brief Ireland hope
The Ronan Kelleher try had some fortune in it. An Ireland lineout lost but the ricochet arriving at Ronan Kelleher who took full advantage of France’s defensive line gap to score. A super finish from Kelleher. France defensively were asleep to the danger.
Game was back on as Ross Byrne converted the extras. The try gave hope of an Ireland win but France defensively got back to dominate the gain line exchanges.
The last five minute cameo testament of Ireland running out of ideas; box kick looking for a France mistake or moving laterally across the pitch losing meters. One out runners, no supporting lines from Ireland made France’s defensive job a little easier in the closing exchanges.
No scrum-half darting runs around the ruck area, an area where Craig Casey could have provided more attacking threat down the closing stretch. Why have him on the bench? Farrell and management hopefully has explained the decision to the player. He deserves an explanation.
The score line was close but France did squander try opportunities in that third quarter to have the game out of sight. France will be relieved to come away from Dublin with a win, their performance was mixed but they still found a way to win. Dulin was exceptional at full back.
For Ireland, the skill set and game plan needs to improve. The player depth pool is being evaluated at half-back and I get that but the heads up rugby from an attacking sense was absent in key stages of this test match. More running line support for the ball carrier would be progression right now.
The hope is that Farrell, Easterby and Catt start to evolve the game plan but I sense that there is a reluctance from the trio to go massively progressive given the current squad skill set and the fact that the majority of this backroom staff were under Joe Schmidt. Old habits are dying hard while trying to find their own identity which is muddled.
O’Gara diplomacy a hint of career intentions?
Ronan O’Gara during VM Sports coverage yesterday was diplomatic. He avoided any critique of players on duty, picking players up mantra. I am sensing that O’Gara is starting to position for perhaps an international head coaching role in time. La Rochelle having a superb season. O’Gara’s coaching resume is impressive. His name will be bandied around.
Andy Farrell and backroom staff need a win badly in Rome in two weeks time. A loss to Italy (who were better than the England score line suggests last weekend) could make for an uncomfortable discussion with the IRFU board once this tournament concludes. 2023 is two years away; the side’s entity under Farrell is unclear, a work in progress. This coaching ticket situation could get very interesting, very quickly. Rome is pivotal for Ireland.