I gave up. I won’t bullshit anyone, I flat out gave up. Why wouldn’t I though – we simply don’t come back from moments like that. How many times have Ireland mounted a last minute comeback that simply falls short? How many times have they given up the lead moments from the end? This was New Zealand 2013, the difference being that, for once, we were New Zealand.
Of course we can’t go and let this paper over the cracks in a fairly ropey Irish display but lets revel in the glory of it all for just a little bit longer. The try was disgraceful, the primary reason for my defeatism, because it was just right out of that typical catalogue of near successes we excelled at so well in the past. Hell, it’s exactly how we lost last time out in Paris. When Teddy Thomas crossed the whitewash with less than ten minutes remaining in the game, I hung my head and began towards resignation. When Keith Earls spilled the ball, I let loose some expletives I’d rather not repeat. When we conceded the scrum penalty I returned to my stool and, for want of a better word, sulked. Why do we keep doing this? Would it be so f**king hard for the Irish rugby team to carry some consistent belief? Johnny Sexton answered.
As an Irish rugby fan I’ve seen the national team and all four provinces do this time and time again but so rarely does it actually go as one would hope. Through the phases, grinding out the hard yards and then…well every so often Ronan O’Gara would kick a sensational drop goal but for the most part the ball gets spilled, a cross-field kick is lost in the contest or even on occasion we have surrendered up the intercept and seen a score down the far end of the pitch remove at least a losing bonus point. So for that reason it was roughly phase 20 before I’d allow myself to get the hopes up. Then he goes cross-field.
Look, plenty is rightfully being made about the drop goal itself, but to me the initial restart and even more so the cross-field kick are doubly impressive. In the context of the drop Sexton at least has a little more control over that. He puts himself in the pocket, allows the breathing space and has some phases to plan. The restart was just voodoo type stuff but the cross-field kick epitomises what was exceptional about this endgame to me, and as far as galvanising moments go it stands alone. Again, this is a move I have seen Irish teams try after the clock has gone red before, but never have I seen it done with conviction. Usually the chip ahead is a shot to nothing, from a team that ran out of ideas and got caught cold. This time out it was as polar opposite to that as could be. Sexton had a plan formulated. Sure, it hinged on France missing their chance to put themselves 4 points clear, but once that was eliminated it was full steam ahead. More importantly, the team was behind it and thanks in no small part to that game against New Zealand in 2013, they were well drilled for this eventuality too. Sexton himself acknowledged it after, his remark about having not had another shot in the past a clear reference to points missed in that 2013 heartbreaker.
This was an absolutely shambolic performance in certain ways given the prowess we expect from this Ireland side, and it was also an entirely surprising performance from a French side that was chucked together in ridiculous circumstances. So, with the opening weekend down we’ve learned very little about where Ireland currently are from a tactical perspective, but we know exactly where they are from a mental perspective. The fact that it is Italy up next and they look likely to remain 60 minute capitulators for the duration of this year’s tournament is a welcome relief for Ireland really because the Parisian endgame would have been incredibly draining. Two home fixtures against the fellow celts follow then and…no, for once I’m not going to say it. But we’ve a great few weeks ahead it seems. Italy lie up next and once again it looks very unlikely they will hold any threat of a victory over Schmidt’s charges. They could definitely still hold a scare though, and if this fixture doesn’t find Jack Conan, Jordan Larmour and Joey Carbery seeing gamete, Schmidt could live to regret it later in the competition.
In other demographics there was less good fortune for the women’s side and the U20s. To be fair to the latter, they mounted a stirring fightback and were up against a very dangerous general in the making in the form of 19 year old out half Romain Ntamack (son of Émile, former Grand Slam and Heineken Cup winner with France and Toulouse respectively). Ntamack was like a hot knife up against the butter of the Irish defence and took two tries for his troubles, as well as a clean sheet with the boot. There were enough positives to be found within the Irish side to bode well for the remainder of this year’s tournament however, with Italy this weekend offering a chance to rectify the errors of last Friday’s closing stages. Unfortunately things looked a little less optimistic for the women’s side, though it can’t be ignored that there is an obvious chasm between the French, English and New Zealand women’s teams and the rest of the nations, with a far higher level of professionalism existing within their respective unions than does in others. Particularly the Irish women’s game though, which is being horribly neglected by the IRFU in broad terms. That aside though, the women’s team is also in a state of transition, with so many of the recent retirees having been absolute staples for many years. There is still a championship there however, and as with the men and U20s there are three home games to come so hopefully the fortunes can turn and some foundations can be put in place for this next generation of the senior women’s game in Ireland.