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Dublin: 16°C Saturday 8 May 2021

How Andy Farrell's Ireland lost the crucial championship minutes in Paris

The visitors made a huge call to go to touch before half-time and then conceded just after the break.

RUGBY COACHES LIKE to talk about the ‘championship minutes’ as a crucial part of the game.

These minutes on either side of the half-time break are often decisive, with scores just before or after the interval usually proving to be major psychological wins.

On the flip side, a successful defensive grandstand in those periods can be stirring and belief-building, while draining the attacking team of confidence after being repelled.

caelan-doris-dejected-after-the-game Ireland had a chance at the Six Nations title in Paris. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Ireland came out on the wrong side of the championship minutes in Paris last night, turning down a shot at goal before half-time but failing to grab a try, then conceding 11 points in the opening 12 minutes of the second half. 

Trailing by 15 points in Paris is a nightmare scenario and Ireland were never likely to overturn that deficit.

They will rue their shortcomings in the championship minutes with a Six Nations title still on the line.


Ireland had actually responded well to conceding a penalty try and losing Caelan Doris to the sin bin in the 30th minute, with the hard-chasing Andrew Conway forcing a knock-on from Charles Ollivon under Johnny Sexton’s restart.

From the ensuing scrum, Ireland’s phase play milked a penalty from the poorly disciplined French – they conceded a total of 14 penalties last night – and Sexton slotted it to bring Ireland back to within a point at 14-13.


Farrell’s side would have hoped to see out the remainder of Doris’ minutes in the bin unscathed but instead they invited the French to re-open that gap.

Ed Byrne, on temporarily for Cian Healy at that stage, knocked-on as he attempted to gather the rebound from a Hugo Keenan kick chase.

Ireland only gave up seven penalties in this game but the concession from Conor Murray in this instance will have frustrated them, the scrum-half failing to release after his tackle and before looking for the breakdown steal.


It’s an easy decision for referee Wayne Barnes and France extend their lead to 17-13 with two minutes of the half left.

A hanging Stockdale garryowen soon after results in Mohamed Haouas knocking the ball on in similar circumstances to Byrne and so, Ireland get one final attacking possession in the half, with France duly giving up another sloppy penalty as Grégory Alldritt strips CJ Stander after the tackle has been completed.

While not exactly a complete gimme, the penalty is certainly kickable – more than 15 metres in from the right-hand touchline and less than 30 metres out.


As we can see above, captain Sexton and lineout leader James Ryan discuss their options.

Doris has just returned to the action so Ireland are back to 15 men but even with that in mind, the immediate sense was that they should take the three points and leave themselves in a nice position at the half-time break.

That decision certainly would have tallied with what had come before – Ireland opting for a 55-metre shot at goal through Murray early in the game before popping over 26th and 33rd-minute penalties through Sexton.

The only time they had gone after a try was with Anthony Bouthier in the sin-bin, with their decision to take a lineout and then scrums close to the French tryline eventually leading to Healy’s score. 

Thanks to that Healy try, Ireland needed to win this game on a six-point margin to secure the Six Nations title and so, taking every available kick at goal made sense.

Instead, Sexton opts to go down the line here, clearly believing in his side’s ability to grab a score that would take them into the lead at half-time and also be a massive psychological blow to France.

It begs the question of what strategy Ireland had agreed on before kick-off, knowing that one try and a six-point margin was enough to win the championship.

“The plan is pretty simple, it’s the feel and flow of the game,” said head coach Andy Farrell when asked what their plan was, “and the guys out there have that feel and flow. 

“I back the players to feel what’s right, feel the flow of the game, and I suppose everyone would judge the decision what’s right and what’s wrong. But I would more go down the line that once you make a decision it’s how you execute that. Those are the bits I’d be critical of.”

Sexton felt the decision to go to the corner was “brave” and suggested that France’s attacking abilities meant Ireland also needed tries: ”With the players they have, they could score tries from nothing. It’s a bit like when you’re playing the All Blacks, you have to have the mentality to go out and score tries.” 

Either way, Ireland didn’t execute after Sexton kicked them to within five metres.

On a night where their lineout ended up in disarray, Ireland claim this one cleanly as Tadhg Beirne rises unopposed.


France stay down to counter-drive, hoping to shunt Ireland back towards the touchline, as they had done viciously just after Bouthier’s yellow card, but the Irish pack have accounted for that with their plan for a shift drive infield.

Ryan [red below] positions himself to the right of Will Connors, who takes the transfer from Beirne, with the intention of dynamically helping the maul left, slipping past the bulk of the French pack.


Gaël Fickou [yellow above], who has started on the tryline, is a key defender here as Ireland suddenly threaten to pick up some speed splintering off to their left.

Fickou and Alldritt [white below] prove crucial in denying Ireland the kind of momentum that might lead to a dynamic maul score.


Andrew Porter might have hoped to slip to the left here too after his initial lift on Beirne but Bernard le Roux appears to cleverly hold him in, so Fickou and Alldritt are able to make a good dent on Ryan and Connors initially.

As highlighted in red below, hooker Rob Herring hasn’t yet slotted in at the tail of the maul after his throw, while CJ Stander is also looking readjust into the shift maul.


Fickou and Alldritt’s good defensive work instantly snuffs out the Irish momentum and buys time for their team-mates to readjust. 

With Julian Marchand posing a potential threat to the ball, Ryan pulls him away to Ireland’s left and that appears to be the first cue for the maul going to ground.


Ireland’s maul has been repelled and now they must go to their phase play in a bid to ensure their big decision pays off.

Off slow ball, Ryan is first to carry, then Stander, Cian Healy, and Porter for little gain.

Ryan and Henshaw make one-out carries as Ireland stay narrow and direct before Stander, with a Healy latch, finally makes some a notable surge over the gainline. Unfortunately for Ireland, they’re turned over on the next phase.


Connors is the man to pick and carry this time, only to be chopped in impactful fashion by Marchand [white below].


As we can see above, Ryan is latching onto Connors and would hope to be in a position to deny France access to the ball post-tackle.

However, France lock Paul Willemse [white below] cleverly targets Ryan and shunts him away to the side.


Rob Herring is now the closest Irish player on his feet but, as we can see below, Marchand and Willemse are a roadblock on the ground.


We can see above that Dylan Cretin is jackaling over the ball looking for a turnover as Herring is desperately trying to get to the breakdown, Marchand and Willemse happily blocking his path.

Some referees might have pinged the French for not rolling clear here, but Barnes is content and focuses on Cretin’s work. The back row is intially on his knees, before using his hands to get himself up over the ball.

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Cretin clearly isn’t on his feet and in control of his body weight here but he does manage to get into a better-looking position in the split second before Herring finally arrives.

With Ryan pulling Cretin off to the side in a bid to get him to ground, Herring then goes straight off his feet as he looks to clear the France flanker.


As Beirne and Sexton follow in similar fashion, Barnes awards the penalty to France for Ireland going off their feet.

Sexton appeals to Barnes, arguing that Cretin’s hands went to ground first, and he obviously has a decent argument here.

But the call goes in France’s favour after they have muscled up with their five-metre defence and Galthié’s men get a huge psychological win.

Ireland can feel aggrieved about the circumstances perhaps but their inability to convert after making a huge call with the penalty is very harmful to their chances of winning.

The half-time team talk would have been an easy one for Galthié: ‘They thought they could overpower us from five metres out? We put them in their place, now let’s show them exactly how good we are’ or something along those lines.

The French scored just over three minutes after the restart.

Ireland actually had possession early in the second half but failed to convert it into real pressure. First, Sexton attempted a chip kick over the French defence.


With no sweeping defender for France and Bundee Aki [yellow above] ready to chase, it’s not a bad decision from Ireland but the execution is off again.

Sexton’s chip is too long and gives Aki no chance of regathering, instead bouncing up into the grateful hands of Bouthier, who can blast a clearance downfield into Ireland’s half.


The chip is a very difficult skill but Sexton will have been disappointed here.

Later in the game, his opposite number, Romain Ntamack, executed the skill in sublime fashion on his ‘bad’ left foot to regather and feed Virimi Vakatawa for France’s bonus-point try.  

Following Bouthier’s clearance, Stockdale kicks to touch for Ireland but the French botch their lineout and Connors pounces on the loose ball to put the visitors back on the attack.

It ends with another poor Irish kick, with inside centre Bundee Aki the man to put boot to ball this time.


Left wing Keenan [red below] isn’t flat to chase the kick, so it seems clear there was no communication in this instance.


Aki’s grubber kick rolls right down the throat of Bouthier, who is well-positioned in the backfield to scoop it up.

If Aki could have angled his kick further towards the touchline and rolled it into touch, it might have allowed Ireland to apply some lineout pressure but it’s a rather aimless kick and Bouthier has lots of time to gather it and smash another clearance into Ireland’s half, this time on his ‘bad’ left foot.

Sexton has to retreat into Ireland’s 22 to gather Bouthier’s superb kick.


With most of his team-mates in front of him, Sexton doesn’t have many options here and opts to hang up a contestable kick for Conway to chase.

It proves to be the platform for France’s third try.


The kick from Sexton is a decent one and Conway takes off aggressively on the chase, only for Antoine Dupont [yellow below] to cleverly get in his way.


Dupont’s positioning in front of the landing point of the kick ensures Conway has to slightly alter his running line, swerving to his left, and helps to ensure the Ireland wing is not under the ball as he and Bouthier leap for it.


Bouthier can complete a clean take of the ball without a contest and he rides Henshaw’s follow-up tackle well, sensing the opportunity against a disorganised Irish defence.

Under specialist kicking coach Vlok Cilliers, who Galthié brought in earlier this year, France have been superb at winning this kind of kicking battle to provide themselves with chances to deliver their lethal transition attack, and this is just the latest example.

It’s a stunning score from the French:

Source: Guinness Six Nations/YouTube

Ntamack – coming from the left-hand side of France’s backfield – receives the offload from Bouthier and immediately identifies how narrow Ireland are, with Doris completely isolated after trying to hold width.


Ireland will be disappointed with their lack of proactivity here, when earlier work-rate might have resulted in them being able to get a little more width in their defence.

The offload from Bouthier is essential after Henshaw has committed into the tackle and Connors and Herring have also condensed in around the fullback. Bouthier’s pass out of contact allows the French to wonderfully exploit the situation.

Even as Ntamack receives the ball, we can see that Dupont [white below] has recognised the opportunity and is already looking upfield and accelerating ahead of the ball.


As highlighted below, Ireland scrum-half Murray spots Dupont taking off and tries to stick with him.


In the meantime, Ntamack draws in Doris before passing and then Fickou, who had a fine game after his move to the left wing, intelligently chips ahead as Sexton closes up on him. 

Stockdale [red below] is the other backfield presence for Ireland and he will likely reflect that he could have worked harder earlier in covering across.


In the moment above, Stockdale is not sprinting flat out when he really needs to be.

As Fickou chips, we can see the quality of France’s support play as Dupont [white] gets up to top speed, having completely out-paced Murray on that upfield line.


Meanwhile, Ntamack [yellow] has done a superb job of initially front-running after his pass to Fickou, staying positive in getting upfield and then easing off to ensure he’s not clearly ahead of the kick.

It’s Dupont who wins the race to the bouncing ball ahead of the retreating Doris and Stockdale, gathering it to dart towards the left corner and offload beautifully inside for Ntamack to finish.


Having failed to score themselves just before half-time, conceding so early after the restart is another huge psychological blow for Ireland.

Though Ntamack can’t convert his own try, he soon adds a penalty after Stander comes in the side of a breakdown, then slots another three points when Porter is rather harshly penalised for not releasing before jackaling.

With Ntamack calmly kicking the three points, France are 28-13 ahead with 52 minutes played.

Even though Farrell’s men did later get back to within eight points and will have serious regrets about lineout failings and missed chances in the 22, it was always highly unlikely they would overturn that scoreline, particularly given the relative weakness of their bench.

Ireland’s shortcomings during the championship minutes were extremely costly.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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