Ireland confirmed their recovery from their chastening defeat to England on the opening weekend to retain an interest in the title. The champions have to win in Cardiff on Saturday against opponents chasing a grand slam, but even a bonus point victory would not be enough should England complete their customary victory over Scotland at Twickenham.
The finish should hold more drama than the tournament itself, which has revealed a significant gap between the top and bottom three. France were not as abject here as they had been at Twickenham a month before, but Ireland’s weaponry was blunter than England’s. Les Bleus were 26 points down with 14 minutes to go and their final flourish did not camouflage the deficiencies of a side which not long ago habitually contested for the title.
“To still be in contention for the championship after the first weekend shows the character of the team,” said the Ireland head coach, Joe Schmidt, after his last home match in the Six Nations. Not to mention the mediocrity of the teams they have beaten since then, and if Ireland were dominant here until they emptied their bench to rest players for Cardiff, they will need more polish if they are to deny Wales the grand slam and give England a tilt for glory.
The fixture between Ireland and France has for much of this decade held little interest for neutrals. Ireland scored three tries in 36 minutes and were denied two more on review in an embarrassingly one-sided opening half, 89 per cent of which was played in the half of France, who attempted 98 more tackles than their opponents.
When Ireland, who had to replace Rob Kearney before the game because of a calf injury, secured the try bonus point 15 minutes into the second half, they immediately made five substitutions. Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray, Tadhg Furlong, Rory Best and Iain Henderson went off to partly mitigate the extra day’s rest Wales have. The dejection that set in after the opening round defeat to England here lifted, and if the prospect of Schmidt signing off with a fourth title hinges on Scotland winning at Twickenham for the first time in 36 years, finishing second would generate momentum before the World Cup.
Much was made in the build-up of how France were tapping into Toulouse’s handling, off-loading game, but when they did have the ball they were hustled off it. Their discipline collapsed under pressure, although this was another afternoon that showed up the contradictory nature of the game: players entering a breakdown from the side to force a turnover were penalised but those who did so to prevent a turnover were tolerated by the referee.
As the team in possession, Ireland had a liberal supply of penalties. From the opening minutes they opted to kick for touch rather than go for goal and scored a try at the first attempt when Henderson took the ball at the front. As France set up to hold the drive, the ball was smuggled to Best on the left wing for the hooker, playing in his last competitive Test here, to score.
France responded through Thomas Ramos after a cross-kick, but a review found that the ball had brushed the fingers of Damian Penaud and bounced forward. They were not to sight their opponents’ line again until the second half as Ireland took an iron grip on the game, keeping it simple and controlling the gainline.
Sexton scored their second try after another penalty lineout, looping around Garry Ringrose after Demba Bamba had entered the maul from the side and the referee played advantage. Cian Healy had earlier been denied an opportunist try as France dithered at a ruck on their line, the prop deemed to have knocked on rather than apply downward pressure, and the excellent Ringrose lost control of the ball near the line after beating Ramos to a high kick.
France were hanging on, if unable to hang on to what little possession they enjoyed, and the replacement back row Jack Conan made the interval score 19-0 when he broke two tackles after a multi-phase move. France started the second period as if they had been told they would be making their own way home and there was an improvement, but Ireland were soon back on the attack with another lineout.
As CJ Stander peeled around the back of it, he slipped an inside pass to Keith Earls who had come off the right wing. It was a staple Ireland move but Bamba was unfamiliar with it. The prop stood too wide and the wing stepped into the space to secure the bonus point. Ireland eased off as their attention switched to Wales. France survived the 68th-minute yellow card shown to the prop Dorian Aldegheri for persistently collapsing scrums and finished with tries from Yoann Huget and Camille Chat in the final reckoning to dent Ireland’s points difference, a factor that is unlikely to come into play on Saturday.