Ireland captain Johnny Sexton, halfback Conor Murray and lock James Ryan have been ruled out of the Six Nations clash with France in a massive setback for coach Andy Farrell as he seeks to keep his side’s tournament hopes alive.
Ireland’s loss against the French resurrected the torch bearers and sceptics of Irish rugby’s central issues.
Questions over the management, the players or the structure echoed once the final whistle sounded across the hallowed Aviva Stadium. Andy Farrell’s men clocked a narrow 15-13 loss against a rejuvenated French side on Sunday evening. It was the fifth defeat out of 11 games for Joe Schmidt’s replacement.
There were various elements to take from Ireland’s mixed performance, with praise held towards their desire, their progression through the third quarter of the pitch and the durability of the set piece, which caused angst among the French.
What stunted Ireland’s performance once again was the back line’s attacking prowess on the breakthrough. Ireland’s biggest break came after Bernard Le Roux was yellow carded for intentionally tripping Keith Earls midway through the first half.
After a neat loop ball to Billy Burns found Hugo Keenan, he pushed the ball wide too early to James Lowe, who narrowly missed out on the first try of the evening as his right foot found touch and play was brought back.
Ireland could not capitalise on the extra man on the field as France responded minutes later with a rapid try via Charles Ollivon. Damian Penaud’s try 14 minutes into the second half was scored in much the same manner as the first with the Blues stretching Ireland’s defensive line and carrying the numbers in behind.
From there it was always going to be an uphill battle for the Irish but a botched lineout in the 56th minute rewarded them with a try through Ronan Kelleher. Ross Byrne converted to reduce the deficit to five points.
The final dash for Ireland highlighted their one-dimensional and flat attacking structure as it showed France’s newfound discipline in periods where they have been known to crumble.
The most significant takeaway from the game in terms of play is Ireland’s institutionalised and coached attacking pattern, which once led to Ireland’s domination in previous years but has now become stale and predictable. Once again Ireland kicked competitive balls into the French 22 to gain territory and pressurise Brice Dulin, but the decision came at occasions when there was an opportunity for the back line to infiltrate the French in wide areas.
After the game, Hugo Keenan admitted to certain flaws in part of Ireland’s game, which need to be addressed.
“In fairness, I think it was our accuracy that let us down. The systems are there, we know what we want to do and you can definitely see it. I know against Wales we were just slightly off in breaking them down out wide and it was similar enough today,” he said.
“I don’t think you can keep playing against that French brick wall. I think we probably could have put it in behind them a bit more and exposed their back field and made it a bit easier for our forwards.’’
The most concerning element of Keenan’s words are expressing the constant utilisation of system rather than spontaneous yet effective rugby. It is a theme within the under-age set-up where fixation on risk-adverse coaching of players to stick to particular pockets or positions is slaughtering skill and creativity.
The players no doubt have the skill to produce quick and attractive rugby but they seem to get forgotten among the sheets of the playbook.
Ireland produced three offloads the entire game compared to France’s 11, which contributed to both tries. The willingness to shake the predisposed notion of narrow lines and box kicking has been noticeable in this campaign but it will take a considerable effort by Mike Catt to remodel traditions that will be effective before the World Cup rolls around in 2023.
Ireland can take pride in what they achieved against France, with a team that edges the new generation of elite rugby. Ireland lacked experience for the most part due to the loss of their regular halves duo Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray along with other key absences. But this may have been the blessing in disguise to level-up young talent.
With Italy to play in two weeks, it is Farrell’s responsibility to give these up-and-coming players minutes and build characters that will manage the game when experienced players are not around.
Consideration for a new-look halves combination will silence some of the messengers who look for young players like Harry Byrne to achieve their first cap in this campaign.
There has been positive news on Joey Carbery’s progress and he will certainly be included once he is back to full fitness but without a fit Sexton, Ireland remain in limbo.
The ultimate goal is 2023 and surpassing the quarter-final fortress. There are approximately 30 games until the World Cup campaign begins and the continuation of rotating the same squad members is counterproductive.
Ireland need to start Harry Byrne, Jack Carty and Ryan Baird as France has done with Matthieu Jalibert and create a depth where injuries or unavailability won’t be the defining moment of Ireland’s demise.