Ireland made a statement by dominating France and earning a win, especially after Willemse was given a red card.
In the past two seasons, the team that won this match also won the grand slam. Based on Ireland’s performance in their 38-17 win against Marseille, it seems likely that they will be a strong contender to win again this year. They may prove to be more difficult to defeat than any of the other four teams in the championship.
After three months following the World Cup, this match was seen as a small preview of what could have been in the final. However, only the Irish team seemed to be in similar form to that of the tournament. Ultimately, the match served as a glimpse into how these two teams have been dealing with the looming question since the end of the knock-out rounds – what comes next? Unfortunately, France has yet to find an answer. Their performance was chaotic, filled with mistakes and missed tackles.
Antoine Dupont’s absence was keenly felt by his team, as he is known for his strong leadership and skill in turning a game around. In contrast, Ireland displayed their usual strength and precision, excelling even more in set-pieces.
Ireland had evidently made efforts to improve their lineout, which had shown signs of weakness during the World Cup. In the early stages of the match, France challenged it with a kick to the sidelines, but Ireland was successful in securing the ball with a throw to Tadhg Beirne. This trend continued, with Ireland successfully executing two more lineouts in the following minutes.
The first incident occurred when Damian Penaud was forced out of bounds by Hugo Keenan, leaving his team in their own 22. The second incident involved Peter O’Mahony’s decision to have Jack Crowley kick a penalty to the corner, resulting in France being in their own 22. After a successful lineout, Crowley kicked a penalty in front of the posts, giving them a three-point advantage.
The first point went to the Irish, and it appeared to give them a boost. Shortly after, they were also given a numerical advantage when Paul Willemse received a yellow card and was sent to the sidelines for colliding with Andrew Porter’s head. Porter was tackling Mathieu Jalibert at the time, and Willemse, charging through afterwards, made direct contact with Porter’s jaw using his shoulder. The French team finally received a bit of respite nine minutes later when the referee, Karl Dickson, informed their captain Grégory Alldritt that Willemse would be allowed back onto the field. However, it was only temporary, as it turned out.
Unfortunately, Alldritt did not have a lot of time to savor the positive update. Shortly after, Jamison Gibson-Park scored the first try for Ireland. This was made possible by impressive runs by Bundee Aki, who has continued his excellent performance from the World Cup into this year’s championship. Although France’s midfield is known for their strength with players like Jonathan Danty and Gaël Fickou, Aki easily dominated them.
The Irish had started so fast that the French were clinging on by their fingernails already. They only just managed to stop Ireland scoring again a few minutes later, when Crowley was tackled just short of the line, and the ball was held up under Tadhg Furlong after he had dived over it. Crowley missed a penalty from in front afterwards, and the French finally got a toehold in the game when Tomas Ramos kicked their first three points. It signalled another swing in the momentum of the game, in so much as everything immediately started to get much worse for the French.
Shortly after, Peato Mauvaka made a forceful tackle on Crowley. It would have been a successful play, except Crowley had already passed the ball to Beirne. Taking advantage of the gap in the French line left by Mauvaka’s tackle, Beirne easily scored under the posts without any opposition.
The score was now 17-3, and shortly after, Willemse received a second yellow card for another shoulder-charge, this time on Caelan Doris. As one Irishman famously said, one incident could be seen as unfortunate, but two starts to seem like carelessness.
We may require a lip-reading expert to inform us of what Porter was muttering while Willemse left the field. With a 14-point deficit and only 14 players on the field, France finally began to perform. They executed their strongest offensive maneuver of the half (although they only made two attempts, so there were limited options), resulting in a four-on-two advantage that allowed Penaud to score and bring the score to 17-10 at halftime.
Ireland extended their advantage in the second half when Calvin Nash scored a try in the corner. This should have secured their win, but France surprisingly performed better with one less player, a common occurrence in today’s games.
The team came together after Paul Gabrillagues scored from a pick and go play, which was only awarded after numerous replays. During the same sequence, Ireland lost O’Mahony to the sin-bin for collapsing a maul in the lead-up to the try. However, this rule can also benefit Ireland as they scored again while playing with only 14 players. Dan Sheehan drove over for the bonus-point try after they kicked a penalty to touch.
Ronan Kelleher replicated a similar move in the closing minutes, solidifying Ireland’s dominant victory and marking it as their largest away win against France to date.
Ireland is currently favored to win the title, while the French team will need to do a lot more strategizing.