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Six Nations France v Ireland: Defiant display could energise hat-trick bid

By Tony Ward

The demand was that they answer Ireland's call and they did it in spades. That Sunday's gutsy display didn't lead to a home win says much about the resilience of the visiting opposition.

In an opening-day match which we all feared would be a cynical, kick-ridden war of attrition, we got a game full of physicality but underscored by practical application and encouraging intent too.

Perhaps in the final analysis a draw represents the fairest result. Yes, it takes away the Triple Crown and Grand Slam for two of the four teams competing on all three fronts but equally it keeps both Celtic nations in the hunt for the big one and in Ireland's case a record third Six Nations title in a row.

Had Joe Schmidt been offered the end result in the lead-in to Sunday's showdown with Wales given the circumstances, he would have taken it with both hands.

Yes, it was disappointing to lose a 13-point lead but equally it took bottle to come back, level it up and see it out.

The positives were many and though mainly in individual terms, they provide tremendous scope for Ireland to improve as a unit.

Before the game we looked to our seasoned campaigners for new leaders to stand up and make their presence felt. Specifically, we hoped that Devin Toner, Jamie Heaslip, Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton could share the load with Rory Best. They did. All five were outstanding.

Toner was immense out of touch and around the field. Heaslip was simply Heaslip and Sexton was commanding. His half-back partner was a revelation. Gone was the slavish box-kicking and instead we saw a return to the all-round game that makes Murray a special talent.

This was Murray of old, re-energised and back to the type of dominant form we have seldom witnessed for Munster of late. With these key players plus Best firing in the first four units of the team, it was game on from an early stage on Sunday.

I single out these players because of their essence as leaders on a day when the individual components went pretty close to matching the sum of the parts.

And what of CJ Stander? Despite Welsh derision at Jamie Roberts being overlooked for man of the match, I felt the official nod in Stander's direction to be spot on.

He was brilliant in almost everything he did with the more dynamic ball-carrying moments underscored by that trademark work ethic of his.

Had Sean O'Brien been available, it is most likely Stander's first cap would have come on the hour, instead, and with the Tank likely to be back for Paris, Stander's name is assured in the back-row.

That said, I thought Tommy O'Donnell was brilliant until his enforced departure

Much will depend of course on how quickly battered and bruised bodies recover in the six-day turnaround.

Am I alone in finding the World Rugby (IRB) and Six Nations concern for player welfare cynical in the extreme when such hugely attritional matches are scheduled just six days apart and in Ireland's case that embraces travelling on Thursday next too?

I agree with Schmidt's take when expressing concern over the narrowness of the Irish defence early on.

The thrust of his point being that the opportunity to drift, scramble and reorganise as we did against the Welsh might not be as easy to replicate against a French side clearly looking to develop that counter-attacking potency which once came so naturally to them down the outside channels.

On the assumption O'Donnell is fit and Keith Earls (who defended well) is not and that O'Brien is ready to return, I suspect the main areas of analysis will centre on tighthead, possibly second row (although Mike McCarthy has earned the right to a recall), openside flank, left wing and full-back.

If Mike Ross is available then he is likely to return in place of Nathan White, while even a fully fit Cian Healy is most definitely now second in the loosehead pecking order to Jack McGrath who was again immense.

Behind the scrum, I'd still love to see a Stuart McCloskey, Robbie Henshaw, Jared Payne combination at 12, 13 and 15 before this Championship is out.

Ulsterman Payne and Henshaw were again solid in midfield and will continue in that vein against the French with Rob Kearney set to return at full-back and Simon Zebo in his more natural left-sided position on the wing.

Andrew Trimble returned as if he had never been away. His natural work ethic is infectious.

Put it all together and, six-day turnaround or not, Ireland will travel to Paris with confidence.

Belfast Telegraph

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