Ireland rediscovered their 2018 mojo to crush France 26-14 and sustain their slender Six Nations title hopes.
Rory Best, Johnny Sexton, Jack Conan and Keith Earls all crossed as Joe Schmidt’s men hit back to form, with Yoann Huget and Camille Chat claiming late consolations for the disorganised French.
Ireland’s bonus-point win means victory against Grand Slam-chasing Wales in Cardiff on Saturday could yet sweep the title, though that would also require an England slip-up against Scotland at Twickenham.
Here’s our report card from a one-sided contest.
Ireland back to their best: Ireland controlled everything from the efficiency at the breakdown, tight defence, excellent continuity play, quick line speed and general commitment to the contest. All the ingredients for a positive performance were on show at the Aviva Stadium.
To underline the intense pressure Ireland had France under in the first half, in particular, they only had to make 62 tackles in contrast to the outrageous 136 France were forced to make.
In total, the Men in Green dominated possession (65%), territory (72%), rucks won (97%), mauls won (100%) and enjoyed more cleans breaks and defenders beaten.
If there was one criticism for an overall strong Ireland display, they switched off in the final ten minutes and conceded two tries.
Set piece: Ireland dominated their set piece, winning 17 out of 18 of their line-outs and seven out of their nine scrums.
It was a large improvement from the win over Scotland where Ireland struggled at line-out time, winning just 15 out of 20.
Against Les Bleus though, it was off the set piece that Ireland looked sharp as they initiated some formidable attacking opportunities. But for all their possession and territory in second half, should have put some more than seven points on the scoreboard.
France penalties: Their discipline continues to be a disgrace. In the first half, they gave away four penalties within ten metres of their line – similar to the first half against Scotland two weeks ago.
In total, they gave away a miserable 12 penalties. Discipline is key in professional rugby and France need to tighten up in this area if they are to have any chance of improving in the future.
Ireland, in comparison, were sharp without the ball, giving out just seven penalties – a testament to their tight game plan where they consistently keep the penalty count to single figures.
Nul structure: The disappointing thing is France have the players to put any team under pressure but they fail to show it.
The visitors showed a glimmer of their class in the second half but have no consistency to their game plan whatsoever.
They can secure possession and make some yards, but just aren’t streetwise in their tactics and nearly go off and do their own thing.
If they stayed organised, like Ireland, the score-line could have looked more attractive and they might have made it a contest.
It’s a shame the general structure in France is atrocious considering how well rugby is run in Ireland, England, France, Wales and Scotland.
The French Rugby Federation are doing no favours and need to change their ways fast.
2 mins: Ireland secure ball off line out and Best burrows through for the opening try on his 116th cap. Sexton converts from a tight angle (7-0).
29 mins: Sexton shows fantastic hands to wrap around Garry Ringrose and collect the return pass. The 33-year-old sprints in over the line for his 10th try. He converts to make it 14-0.
35 mins: Murray looks to pick apart the France defence from the 22 and sends a pass to Conan who barrels over from close range (19-0).
56 mins: From a planned move off the line-out, CJ Stander feeds Keith Earls who cuts through for a glorious bonus point try. Sexton posts the conversion (26-0).
77 mins: Ireland switch off and Huget sprints through from 20 metres to score a consolation try. Baptise Serin converts (26-7).
80 mins: Chat touches down for a late try. Serin converts (26-14).
TACTICAL TURNING POINTS
Ireland were superior from start to finish. They dominated possession and territory and kept the pressure on, with France unable to get a foothold in the contest.
The hosts made good decisions and held the ball, in contrast to a France side who consistently gave away penalties when under pressure.
Les Bleus lacked discipline, composure and accuracy. As someone who has admired French Rugby for such a long time, this current side is shambolic and it’s hard to see them make any impact at the World Cup later this year.
For Ireland, it was a classy display despite conceding two late tries. Of the many solid performances on show at the Aviva, the showings of James Ryan, Garry Ringrose and Stander will be a confidence booster ahead of their final match against Wales next Saturday.
A brilliant performance despite late lapse in concentration. It was the response Schmidt would have wanted and sets them up for a crucial match against Wales in Cardiff. The Dragons bidding for a first Grand Slam since 2012 and Ireland looking to win a second Six Nations title in three years. A thriller awaits.
The visitors lacked any sort of creativity or belief during the game. It was as if they were beaten after the first try was scored. Not a lot coach Jacques Brunel can do when it looks like the majority of the players aren’t interested in donning the French jersey.
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Captain Guilhem Guirado insists France will not target Johnny Sexton in Sunday’s Six Nations clash in Dublin.
Hooker Guirado claimed Les Bleus would risk losing focus if chasing Ireland’s talisman fly-half in the Aviva Stadium encounter.
Sexton has railed against continued physical treatment from opponents amid Ireland battling to find form in this Six Nations, with the reigning champions losing to England and labouring to wins over Scotland and Italy.
Head coach Joe Schmidt has conceded Ireland use Sexton – with the playmaker’s tacit approval – as bait in special moves that draw holes in defences, and Guirado is loathe to see France fall for that ruse.
“Obviously Johnny is very important for their organisation but there are also a lot of very good players around him,” said Guirado, of Sexton.
“So we have to focus to work as a team first and not just focus on one player.
“Even though Ireland have had some troubles we know they will be ready for the match tomorrow, they are very well organised.
“But we’re not really focused on them, we’re focused fully on ourselves.”
Toulouse half-backs Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack spearheaded France’s return to form in their stunning 27-10 victory over Scotland in Paris.
Now Les Bleus are desperate to ensure that result was not merely a flash in the pan, although they expect a sterner test in Dublin than against the Scots.
Toulon hooker Guirado hailed Dupont and Ntamack for transferring their club form to the Test arena, but also called on France’s collective to keep their young playmakers on track.
“They are young, but they are used to playing together,” said Guirado.
“They are learning very quickly and they are leading the game, but it’s obviously all the players around them that have to help them.
“It’s good for our confidence, obviously after a long period of defeat, to have a victory.
“It’s good for the group, but one of the elements we are most proud about is what we did with the ball last weekend.
“But as well we have to consider the conditions tomorrow and to adapt our rugby.”
An eight-try, 57-14 win over Italy means England could still claim the Six Nations title, if Ireland can overcome Grand Slam-chasing Wales in Cardiff.
Jones’ side will be seeking to reclaim the Calcutta Cup lost in 2018 in Murrayfield, which was followed by unsavoury abuse of the England boss at a Manchester train station by Scotland supporters.
Jones later admitted he no longer felt safe to travel by public transport and felt pre-match comments from Gavin Hastings – the former Scotland captain said Scotland would love nothing more than “to rub Eddie Jones’s face in the dirt” – were contributing factors to the disgraceful behaviour.
“We’ll rip into training and be at our absolute best next week, because we’re going to have to be to beat Scotland,” Jones said at Twickenham on Saturday.
ENG 57 - 14 ITA | Post-match reaction with Manu Tuilagi 🌹 pic.twitter.com/utNE3bIlBk— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) 9 March 2019
“We know that’s their game of the year. We saw how they carried on last year after they beat us. So, we might have short memories sometimes, but sometimes you have longer memories.”
Jones declined to elaborate, saying: “I just remember everything that was being said. That’s all I have to say. I don’t have to recite what’s been said.”
Manu Tuilagi and Brad Shields scored two tries apiece as England ran amok against Italy, who have now lost a record 21 successive Six Nations games.
Jamie George, Jonny May, George Kruis and Dan Robson also scored tries for England, who bounced back from their 21-13 loss to Wales in Cardiff two weeks ago.
Rarely short of confidence, Jones was even critical of his own performance at the Principality Stadium, but pleased with the response against Italy.
“I don’t think I coached the side very well against Wales and I take responsibility for that,” he added.
“Did I doubt myself? Probably not. I was filthy about the way I coached. I didn’t coach well.
“I let the players down. It was good to see we got together, worked hard and got ourselves right for this game.”
Tuilagi was in devastating form, while Joe Cokanasiga also impressed, although Jones would prefer a more conservative approach to handling from the Bath wing.
Jones added: “He did some good things. The one-handed stuff’s great for you guys, but possibly he could carry with two hands at other times.
“He’s a young kid with great potential.”
Tuilagi showed why he is being linked with a lucrative move to the French Top 14 after the World Cup, which would make him ineligible for England.
Jones added: “We’ve taken his passport. So he’s not going to France in the next week. I’ve got it in my pocket.”
Italy head coach Conor O’Shea insisted his side are better than the result suggests and can finish on a high by beating France in Rome next week.
He said: “Sometimes you can over analyse things. We were overpowered. And they’re an unbelievably powerful side.
“They were a hurting side. But they’re the best side in the Six Nations, in my opinion.
“With the ball we caused problems and showed some really good moments in the match and we could’ve had more out of the match, instead of the couple of tries we got.”
Talismanic captain Sergio Parisse is optimistic of shrugging off a hamstring problem to play in what could be his final Six Nations game.