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Six Nations: My faith in Joe hasn't diminished one iota

By Tony Ward

To the opening weekend's loss of Triple Crown and Grand Slam aspirations, add realistic dreams of a third successive Six Nations title.

It is still mathematically possible, but already we are depending upon results elsewhere, as well as winning our three remaining games.

With England gathering momentum ahead of their clash with the reigning champions in two weeks' time, Joe Schmidt cut to the chase in the aftermath in Paris, stating: "For us, it will be build towards Twickenham and put together the best performance we can over there."

His point is well taken and the emphasis on "performance" fully understood. I guess we should be thankful for small mercies that the TV paymasters, in cahoots with the Six Nations organising committee, have given us two weeks to lick our wounds and re-assess.

Much though we will all be clamouring for change - and include me in that - I expect there to be a battening down of the hatches and circling of the wagons.

We didn't come remotely close to an optimum level of performance in Paris but there were mitigating factors.

The rainfall was unrelenting. There was also the issue of officiating. I am loath to criticise referees as I feel theirs is a thankless task. On Saturday, however, I felt Jaco Peyper had a poor 80 minutes.

Between the man in the middle, the touch judges (and that included Nigel Owens) and TMO George Ayoub, you felt communication was jammed. At no stage did you feel they were in control.

I will be astonished if the citing commissioner does not take up where Ayoub failed to act in relation to incidents surrounding Yoann Maestri and Jonathan Sexton, and Guilhem Guirado and Dave Kearney. And no, I am not wearing green-tinted glasses.

The French deserved to win this game for the quality of their defending but more for their use of the scrum.

It's not rocket science deciphering where they will hit you hardest, and when it comes to scrummaging they never deviate, only this time Guy Noves got close to tactical perfection.

He gambled on Jefferson Poirot and Uini Atonio surviving the opening 40 before launching the heavy artillery in Rabah Slimani and Eddy Ben Arous. These tactical substitutions, plus Maxime Machenaud for Sebastien Bezy at the base of the scrum, had the desired effect.

From an Irish perspective, we're grasping at straws. Individually, Jack McGrath, Devin Toner, CJ Stander, Robbie Henshaw, Jared Payne and Andrew Trimble had their moments, but collectively, while never giving less than 100 per cent, we were bereft of attacking nous.

Ulster's Payne deserves special mention as it was obvious he was carrying an injury.

Once Slimani and Ben Arous arrived they turned the scrummaging screw, making it nigh on impossible to get into French territory. In that context, the deliberate knock-down by Maxime Mermoz with 10 minutes remaining was critical.

How it was missed by touch judge Stuart Berry (on that side) and the TMO from on high is beyond me. Schmidt made much of the Henshaw/Kearney incident in the first-half, given that it was one of the few times we came close to the French try line.

There was also the Conor Murray pass which bounced unintentionally off Trimble.

On such seemingly small incidents do attritional matches at this level swing.

The scrum call for the intentional knock-down by Mermoz was massive: it denied Ian Madigan the opportunity to kick into the French 22 and implement an attacking maul.

Instead we had another couple of minutes wasted resetting the scrum inside the Irish half.

So the more tactically astute team earned their win, but for sure it was an Irish opportunity lost.

This is a French team in transition and at this point it's a very limited one, despite their obvious ambition.

Despite Ireland's ever growing list of injuries, I do believe there are measured options to improve our attacking scope.

My faith in the main man has not diminished one iota but he faces a new challenge and one he certainly has not experienced in Irish rugby other than his first few months at Leinster - when there were some people urging him to take a quick hike.

He is now being questioned closely and maybe that is no bad thing.

Belfast Telegraph


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