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Comment: Ireland show signs of 2018 brilliance but perfectionist Schmidt still has work to do

Ireland 26 France 14

Power play: Jack Conan of Ireland is tackled by Guilhem Guirado of France but the Frenchman can’t stop him scoring a try
Power play: Jack Conan of Ireland is tackled by Guilhem Guirado of France but the Frenchman can’t stop him scoring a try
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

On a day when the Dublin weather squeezed a few seasons into one afternoon, the Ireland team did the same in beating an abject France to maintain hopes of retaining their Six Nations crown.

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More often than at any other stage of this championship, Joe Schmidt's men were displaying the spark of 2018 and, while the error-strewn nature of the 2019 vintage reared its head throughout too, the hosts didn't need to be any more accurate than they were to secure a bonus-point win.

Ever a perfectionist, head coach Schmidt will no doubt have zeroed in on the number of scores left out there in addition to the four his side managed but, faced with an opposition all too willing to give them the ball back, there never felt to be much riding on those chances that went begging.

France who were torn asunder when last on their travels against England in Twickenham were spared further embarrassment only by the degree of profligacy showed by their hosts and a late rally when the game was gone.

For Ireland the question will be to what degree they were back to their best or if their visitors were at their worst. In truth, it is likely a combination of both.

The down week after Italy certainly seemed to do last season's Grand Slam winners the world of good, but the confidence that has been called into question throughout the championship was never tested for brittleness, nothing eradicating those niggling doubts quite like an early try.

Jordan Larmour was called into the starting line-up only as a late replacement for the stricken Rob Kearney and it was the young full-back's early kick that had France on the scramble before a minute of the game was gone.

England had got such joy when turning the French back three around back in round two and Larmour's kick caused similar panic, forcing Damien Penaud into conceding a line-out in perfect mauling territory.

The first didn't quite get over the line but a French penalty allowed for a second chance and the subsequent score was one made in Ulster - Best to Iain Henderson and back to the skipper for the try.

There was nearly a measure of revenge soon after when Larmour himself was targeted aerially but a French try was chalked off for a knock-on in the challenge.

Ireland were certainly on top, if not unfailingly accurate, but their closest to a second in the opening quarter game from French possession. With Les Bleus ponderous at the ruck despite the ball being sat on their own line, Cian Healy sneaked in to try for a cheeky score but was adjudged to have knocked it on.

When Ireland's second did come, there could hardly be an argument made that it was against the run of play.

With the wind whipping into their faces France had been unable to exit their own '22' for an age. Eventually the pressure told. With the French showing stereotypical indifference to getting back onside, Ireland went to the corner again. Rather than opt for the maul again from what was already their 11th line-out of the game, it was instead a textbook wraparound play for Sexton and Ringrose, cleverly using Larmour as the decoy, to sent Ireland's number 10 over.

The third would soon follow, replacement back-rower Jack Conan barrelling over some 10 phases after Henderson ripped the ball from Demba Bamba with Joe Schmidt's men even having the time to squeeze another disallowed score in between, Ringrose knocking on after climbing over Ramos to emphatically claim a Sexton garryowen.

19-0 at half-time with five seconds of the first 40 minutes spent in the home side's '22'. Defence coach Andy Farrell will never have had devoted more energy unnecessarily, his side having had to make just 26 tackles in the first half.

If ever there was a team who could overturn such a deficit, it was not, in fairness, France. Jacques Brunel's side, by virtue of one possession, had forced Ireland into more tackles after the turn than before by four minutes after the resumption of play but rarely looked cohesive enough to haul their way back.

As another wintry deluge concluded, Ireland had their first chance to secure the bonus coming off a five-metre scrum but eventually lost the ball forward after Conan was repelled but yet another offside gave then another go. Again it wasn't overly clinical, again France gave them the ball back.

This time, the fourth try would come. Henderson took the line-out, Stander found Keith Earls going against the grain and tighthead Bamba was never going to stop the Munsterman from drawing level with Tommy Bowe as Ireland's second highest try-scorer of all time, behind only Brian O'Driscoll.

The bonus point was the signal for the Irish bench to spring into action and by the hour mark only Andrew Conway, the late call-up to the 23, was the only player still waiting for his number to be called.

The last 20 lacked any real punch but France, playing with 14 after an Aldegheri yellow, did avoid being nilled thanks to a late try from Yoann Huget and then bridged the gap further with a score from replacement hooker Chat with the clock red.

Regardless, Ireland's title hopes will go to the last day and their trip to Cardiff for Warren Gatland's Six Nations farewell.

Long as those odds are, needing an English slip-up against Scotland as well as their own win over Wales, who'd have thought that all the way back in the first weekend of February?

The suspected loss of Josh van der Flier will require a change to the seven shirt once again but other than that the side seem to have come through with only the one fresh injury.

Kearney, who had calf tightness on Saturday that saw him replaced by Larmour, is expected to be back in the frame but Schmidt appeared less confident that Robbie Henshaw would have a chance of making the trip to Cardiff.

Wales, with the benefit of an extras day's rest were thought to be optimistic too that full-back Liam Williams would recover for the contest.

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