Murray Kinsella reports from Paris
IRELAND WILL BE more critical of themselves than anyone, while the rest of us will also pick through their performance in Paris in the coming days to point out the shortcomings and areas that need improvement going forward.
Joe Schmidt is notorious for demanding a drive for perfection from his players and there is no doubt his review of the 15-13 win against France on Saturday will have been frank and focused.
There were several flaws in Ireland’s display, for sure, and yet that Johnny Sexton drop goal and the build-up to it felt like a huge moment for the mental state of this Ireland squad.
The sense of belief it will have sent flowing through Schmidt’s players is difficult to truly evaluate, but having had their backs pressed firmly against the wall to deliver over the course of those five incredible minutes will leave a lasting imprint.
Some of the players centrally involved for Ireland in Paris said the confidence was there, even when Teddy Thomas scored his delightful 74th-minute try to send France in front.
“We had belief,” said Dan Leavy, who was superb off the bench. “We said under the posts when Teddy scored a serious try, ‘Just get the ball back and hold onto it, make our way down the field, try and get a penalty or if we can score, then we score.’
“But the ball was greasy and it was quite slow in the rucks and stuff because there was a bit of moisture on it and it was quite difficult to handle.
“We had belief. We had worked seriously hard this week and last week over in Spain in Oliva Nova and, yeah, Johnny obviously has the biggest balls on the planet and he managed to kick it.”
Centre Bundee Aki echoed the sentiment of Ireland’s confidence remaining strong even with defeat appearing likely to many of us on the outside.
“I don’t think there was any doubt at all,” says the Connacht midfielder. “There was a lot of belief from the boys. They trusted each other and trusted the process.
“The boys came in together in a huddle after that try was scored and they just said, ‘Here, we’ve got five minutes to do it and if you want to do it, keep your hand up and keep going.’
“I think that’s what the boys did. Leaders just led and the young fellas just followed on.”
When Schmidt reflected on how his team had come through the most testing circumstances, he expressed his hope that the achievement will drive Ireland to a new level of mental strength.
“Getting through something like that, I think it helps build the group together,” said Schmidt. “It does strengthen the team bond and hopefully that will give them the resolve and the resilience that is required.
“Because it is such a tough competition that we know we are going to be in similar situations, maybe not right at the end of the game, but similar situations that we are going to have to fight our way through.”
While he looks to improve his side’s effectiveness in attack, Schmidt indicated that he takes some level of comfort from Ireland being at home for the next three rounds, a run of fixtures that begins with the visit of Italy to Dublin on Saturday.
While the Ireland boss stressed how difficult the conditions had been – with the slippery surface leading to knee injuries for Antoine Dupont and Josh van der Flier – he agreed that his team will need to find more cutting edge in terms of try-scoring after failing to cross the whitewash in Paris.
However, even in that absence of five-pointers, Schmidt saw some positives in how his players still managed to eke out a winning margin.
“When you have to fight as hard as we did today and we didn’t get the tries and you don’t get the flash finish that you like, you have got to roll your sleeves up and work a little bit harder to make sure you create those,” said Schmidt.
“There are some things that happened today when we lost our shape and if you look early in the game, there’s a penalty advantage where we actually create really good space down the left-hand touch and quickly the advantage is blown up and we come back and we’re given a penalty.
“I felt then that we had actually put the ball through a few phases really effectively and that we had our shape about us.
“The longer and more attritional the game became it was just getting harder and harder.
“There was a lot of one-out carries from them and we resorted to it as well as the game got slower and the rucks got slower because as soon as you started to make two and three passes you were getting knocked behind the advantage line and it was just too hard to work from back there.”
And so, while Ireland will need to grow if they are to reclaim the Six Nations title for the first time since 2015, this whirlwind victory was a satisfying start overall.
Hearts were in mouths, but Schmidt’s men emerged from Paris with their confidence reinforced and perhaps that new-found “resolve and the resilience” that their head coach is hoping to see.
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