Ireland captain Jonathan Sexton has said the squad will look back ‘with a lot of regrets’ on their 35-27 defeat to France on Saturday night.
Despite losing to England back in February, Ireland entered the final round of the Guinness Six Nations as table toppers, in a three-way battle for the Championship crown.
With England being made to work for a 34-5 victory in Rome, a bonus point triumph or a win by six points (with at least one try) or seven points in Paris would have been enough to Ireland win the title.
Unfortunately it did not work out for Andy Farrell’s men. Even though they completed the tournament with a 100% home record, those chastening losses away to England and France will linger.
While both games were unique in their own way, Sexton admitted there was one common theme that is readily apparent, saying:
They’re two totally different games. The one we played against England and the one today (Saturday). Similar in some ways, in terms of at this level you can’t give teams scores from your mistakes.
“You need to make them work hard for them. France made us work unbelievably hard for our scores and we weren’t quite clinical enough.
“I don’t know how many five metre lineouts we had. Our conversion rate from them wasn’t too hot. A couple of five-metre scrums…the difference that can be made by taking those opportunities.
“I thought we had a lot of opportunities tonight in comparison to the England game. I don’t think we had many opportunities at all in the first half (against England), in terms of scoring tries.
“I felt tonight was there for the taking. We’ll look back on it with a lot of regrets. They’re a good side and they’re a young side. They’re going places. You can see they’ve got much improved organisation and spirit within the squad. They’re a very good team.”
To compound matters, a considerable downpour of rain made it difficult for Ireland to execute their desired game-plan and really punish the French in the way they had intended.
Once France stretched their lead to double digits in the second half, Sexton felt the conditions were to their advantage and Ireland consequently found it tough to peg them back.
“The conditions were very, very tough. You get the new balls, which have a film on them. With how greasy it was with the rain through the evening and into the game the ball was like a bar of soap.
“Of course it’s easier when you’re winning the game because you don’t need the ball. You can kick it long, you can kick it and that’s what we knew they were going to do.
“I’m surprised we got as many set pieces as we did this evening, because we didn’t expect to get any with how they played. Like I said, it’s easier to play in those conditions when you’re winning.
“Because you don’t need the ball and they capitalised on our mistakes on the loose ball a lot. They’ve got some individual players like that, who can just punish you from nothing.”
Following the sucker punch of an early Antoine Dupont try, Ireland gained a numerical advantage when Anthony Bouthier was sent to the sin-bin just a few minutes later.
The French full-back was penalised for deliberately batting the ball into touch as Hugo Keenan – on his second appearance for Ireland – attempted to score in the corner from a Sexton kick.
Referee Wayne Barnes opted against awarding a penalty try as he deemed Gael Fickou was in a good position to potentially stop Keenan from grounding the ball.
Sexton queried Barnes on his decision and believes it could well have been an automatic seven points for Ireland – which they eventually secured through centurion Cian Healy’s 18th-minute converted effort.
The Ireland skipper admitted: “What I said was, ‘so if the guy commits foul play he has to be taken out of the equation’. That was my understanding of the rule.
“For example, if it’s a high tackle and he was taken out of the equation, you’ve got to look at the picture as if he wasn’t there.
“I thought Hugo, having missed the first bounce, was standing right underneath the ball, would have maybe grabbed it and put it straight down. They didn’t see it that way.
“They felt there was another French player (Fickou) in the vicinity, but they’re the small margins that we talk about all the time. We didn’t get the rub of the green.
“We scored shortly after, but it took a lot of effort. A penalty try there would have meant obviously a much easier run.”
One of the driving forces behind France’s success on the night was the silky half-back pairing of Dupont and Romain Ntamack. The Toulouse pair came away with a try apiece, while Ntamack also contributed 13 points from the tee.
Added to that, their creative influence set the tempo for an astute second half display by the French. Sexton was quick to acknowledge the quality of the young duo.
They can create something out of nothing, can’t they? They showed that again. We knew that was going to be the case. We studied them hard but again, like I said, there were a couple of tries that were a couple of our mistakes, obviously.
“Then a couple of moments of brilliance by them. We knew they were going to have their moments and I thought we coped with them well enough at times and then other times we didn’t put enough pressure on them.
“We knew they could score a try from nothing and that’s what they’ve done throughout the Championship. That’s another reason why we were quite aggressive with our decision making.”