RUGBY COLUMN – MARCH 12
By Daire Walsh
Ireland kept their Six Nations Championship hopes on track with a bonus-point victory over France at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
Following patchy displays in back-to-back successes against Scotland and Italy – preceded by a disappointing opening round reversal to England – a vastly-improved effort gave Joe Schmidt’s side a deserved 26-14 triumph.
Rory Best, Jonathan Sexton, Jack Conan and Keith Earls all crossed over to ensure Ireland got their maximum output by the hour mark. Late French tries courtesy of Yoann Huget and Camille Chat glossed over the gulf in class that existed between the teams, though he it does show that the high watermark of 2018 hasn’t quite been regained just yet.
For both Schmidt and his skipper Best, this round four affair was highly emotive. While he hasn’t confirmed his retirement from the international scene, the Ulster hooker is expected to hang up his boots at the end of this year’s World Cup.
This would mean that – like the soon-to-be departed Schmidt – Sunday’s game will be the final Six Nations game of his glittering career with Ireland. When the Irish team was announced on Friday, it included 13 starters from last March’s Grand Slam clincher at Twickenham Stadium.
That number was subsequently reduced to 12 come match day – after calf victim Rob Kearney was replaced by Leinster team-mate Jordan Larmour. Kearney joined Joey Carbery on the treatment table – the Athy place-kicker still nursing the hamstring injury that ruled him out of the Italy game.
Schmidt also revealed that Eadestown’s Tadhg Beirne was feeling a little bit sore in camp, though he also said that he was in contention for the 23-man squad. Wary of a potential French surge, Ireland hit the ground running through Best’s third-minute try.
Even though they received a let-off when a Thomas Ramos five-pointer was chalked off for a Damian Penaud knock-on, Ireland completely dominated the remainder of the opening period. Despite the admirable endeavours of the French defence, Sexton and replacement Conan drove over the whitewash to give Ireland a 19-0 interval cushion.
They maintained their attacking pressure on the resumption, with Earls finally making sure of a bonus win with a typically clinical 56th-minute finish. A raft of replacements perhaps killed the Irish momentum and France gained some joy in the closing moments.
Nevertheless, Ireland enter next Saturday’s away meeting against Wales with an outside chance at retaining their Six Nations title.
Meanwhile, Martin Moloney (Athy) played a pivotal role for the magnificent Ireland U20s team in their Friday night success over France at Musgrave Park. A Six Nations already wrapped up as a consequence of this fourth consecutive victory, Noel McNamara’s men will now seek a Grand Slam against Wales in Colwyn Bay on Friday.
There was disappointment for the Ireland women in their Six Nations showdown with Les Bleus at Donnybrook on Saturday. Despite claiming tries through Ciara Griffin, Claire Molloy and Sene Naoupu, they fell to a 47-17 reversal.