Away wins do not carry quite the premium as usual in this Six Nations, but a win in Dublin has proved beyond France for the last 10 years. As this young band of classy, athletic Frenchmen continue to impress a world that has been missing its dose of Gallic flair for so long, they ticked yet another box by winning with some class in the lair of the Irish.
They did not start particularly well, but they finished with authority and in between showed enough flashes of style to put the game just beyond Ireland, who were a lot younger themselves than we have been used to of late. In truth, the home team, for all their long periods of dominance, never really threatened to dent France’s composure. Only the French themselves managed that, but the way they rode their problems to prevail was impressive. They finish round two at the top of the table, yet to play a home match, for all that home advantage matters these days.
For the Irish, though, the prospects are bleak. There were extenuating circumstances, but the reality is they are two defeats from two in this championship with no prospect now of much more than the dread directive of building for the future.
“There are mixed emotions,” said Andy Farrell, Ireland’s head coach. “Test matches are there to be won, especially at home, but this is one that slipped away from us.”
An avalanche of caps had slipped away from the Ireland team in the week, as Peter O’Mahony’s suspension was followed by the ruling out through injury of Johnny Sexton, captain no less, Conor Murray and James Ryan. All the same, neither side looked settled early on.
All too easily the sort of prolonged kicking duels broke out that give a sport a bad name in this age of screaming demand for entertainment. What was worse for the visitors is that their set piece malfunctioned horribly in that first quarter. Andrew Porter seemed to have the measure of Cyril Baille at scrum time, and it was not until the second quarter that France won one of their own lineouts, by which time they had surrendered three to the Irish.
As if that was not enough, at the start of the second quarter, Bernard Le Roux was sent to the sin bin for a subtle trip on Keith Earls. Only then, with typical counterintuition, did France hit anything like the sort of notes we have come to expect lately.
Billy Burns had stepped in for Sexton, and the nerves seemed to be eating at him when he pushed a simple penalty wide, before converting a simpler one a few minutes later for the first points of the match. Then, from the lineout set up by Le Roux’s indiscretion, Ireland thought they had scored, but James Lowe’s toenail scraped the touchline.
France finally won a lineout a few minutes later, followed by another, from which they scored the game’s first try. The usual suspects combined in scintillating style, Antoine Dupont to Matthieu Jalibert to Julien Marchand, back to Dupont to Damian Penaud on the outside. Ireland were breached, and when the ball came left a bouncing pass to Gaël Fickou pulled in Rhys Ruddock and Jamison Gibson-Park. Charles Ollivon was away for the try.
Jalibert landed the conversion and a penalty a minute before the break to give France a seven-point lead at the break, from precious little possession. France seemed more settled now, and they struck again in the third quarter, only to yield a soft try straight back to Ireland. Again, the dazzling half-backs were to the fore. Dupont played a smart switch with Jalibert, who put Brice Dulin away. He found Penaud, who finished in the corner. Daylight at last, but not for long.
Ollivon was adjudged harshly to have taken out Earls at the restart. He then spoiled Ireland’s lineout from the penalty, only for Rónan Kelleher, the replacement hooker, to pounce on the loose ball and canter home to the corner. Ross Byrne’s conversion, followed by an equally testing penalty with quarter of an hour to play, pulled Ireland back to within two.
Jalibert had a chance to put France’s lead back out to five, but he struck the post with his penalty attempt. No matter, the visitors were in the mood now, all the more impressively so, given the late stage of the match, when these things matter. Dupont, quiet by his standards, broke down the left to keep the pressure on. France could not finish, but Ireland could not by now even threaten.
Impressive indeed by this young France side. Now they return home to face the dangerous, smarting Scots.