Joe Schmidt believes Ireland reasserted their World Cup credentials in a punishing 26-14 Six Nations win over France in Dublin.
Captain Rory Best, Johnny Sexton, Jack Conan and Keith Earls all crossed as Ireland suffocated the disorganised French at the Aviva Stadium.
Head coach Schmidt had conceded Ireland had slipped off the perch of their stellar 2018 in losing to England and labouring past Scotland and Italy – but believes Sunday’s controlled victory plots the course back to top form.
Ireland will now attempt to derail Wales’ Grand Slam charge in Saturday’s Principality Stadium clash in Cardiff, with boss Schmidt relieved to see his men back on song.
Asked if the comprehensive France victory can prove a timely reminder of Ireland’s World Cup aims, Schmidt said: “Probably. Again I know there’s been some frustration externally, and it has been internal as well.
“We’ve been frustrated that we haven’t been as cohesive as we would have liked, and that we started the championship on a really flat note.
“And one of the great reminders for us is you get nothing back in a Test match. You can’t go and say ‘ah well we missed that opportunity, can we go and play it again tomorrow?’
“You get one window and you can’t just open it a little to let the breeze in, you’ve got to open it right up and get through it.
“So I think that’s what we showed a little bit more of today. It will give confidence, but we know what a challenge next week’s going to be anyway.
“We said all along this is a little bit similar to what we’ll have to contend with at the end of the year anyway, with a six-day turnaround from a team in blue to a team in red.
“It’s not something that we want to miss a beat with now. We want to keep building over these next six days if we can.
“And I’m sure the Welsh boys were sitting back with feet up watching and they will be very much primed for us next week.”
Ireland pinned France into their own 22 for almost the entire first-half in a stunning muscle-flexing turn, leaving Schmidt suitably impressed.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen in the last six years a team control a 40 minutes like we did in that first-half,” said Schmidt.
“We kept that pressure on, and to keep that pressure on four that 40 minutes spoke volumes about the energy and the intensity we brought to our game.
“We need the confidence as well, we need to get back on the front foot.
From where we were last time we sat in this room, it’s taken a while but there was a bit of our rhythm back today.
“But in six days’ time it becomes a whole different equation. Wales in Cardiff is always a complicated fixture for us.”
Rob Kearney pulled out of Sunday’s France clash at the last minute with a calf injury, but Schmidt expects the Leinster full-back to be fit to face Wales.
Robbie Henshaw is unlikely to recover from his dead leg in time however, leaving Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose the favourites to start in Cardiff.
“I think Rob Kearney will be a really good chance, he just had calf tightness yesterday,” said Schmidt.
“So I’d be surprised if Rob wasn’t training on Tuesday, or Wednesday, depending on when we next train. That will depend how the recovery goes, tomorrow and Tuesday.
“Robbie Henshaw would be less of a chance. Robbie is recovering but it’s slower than expected.
“That dead leg has just unfortunately lingered. It’s a long, long time ago since I played but I had one.
“And in some situations it’s almost impossible to get rid of it fast. You just have to let it recover in its own time.”
France captain Guilhem Guirado admitted Les Bleus paid the price for their poor first-half showing.
He said: “Ireland kept hold of the ball so well in the first-half they didn’t give us a chance to initiate anything.”
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.
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.”