Guinness Six Nations: Ireland face uphill task to transform their fortunes as French roll into town

Tommy Butler, Longford RFC PRO

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Tommy Butler, Longford RFC PRO

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Thankfully in the absence of all other rugby the 2021 Six Nations kicked off, albeit with no fans as has become the new norm.

The result of the weekend was unquestionably Scotland’s 6-11 Calcutta win in Twickenham, their first since 1983.

The Scots, led by a brilliant Stuart Hogg, played with incredible commitment and vigour and despite Finn Russell doing more wrong than right at pivot, earned a deserved victory against a flat and predictable English side.

Undoubtedly, the lay off for the Saracens players, captain Owen Farrell, Billy Vunipola and Maro Itoje left them lacking game time and they seemed off the pace at times.

Itoje is a very similar player to Ireland's Peter O’Mahony in a lot of ways in that they never take a backward step and are a constant nuisance. However, as we saw the way they play leaves them constantly walking a thin line and both crossed it, with Itoje giving away a number of penalties and O’Mahony earning himself a red card.

The Six Nations is all about momentum and now France, Scotland and Wales go into their next matches with a pep in their step and dreaming of a Championship or even Grand Slam, while the recrimination begins in the losing camps.

Ireland showed enough signs to be positive but welcoming a confident French side to Dublin next Sunday is a tough way to have to turn it around.

France looked every bit the favourites for the Championship and possibly a grand slam, a feat they have not achieved since 2010. They are brilliantly led by their ‘petit-général’ Antoine Dupont, who is possibly the best player in world rugby at the moment. Ireland will go into the game against France as underdogs, possibly shorn of Johnny Sexton and also second row James Ryan, who both went off injured.

One thing is sure, Ireland is now looking down instead of up and it will take a herculean effort to beat a French side who are seriously on the up.

IRELAND PLAYER RATINGS
1. Cian Healy 6: Got around and did a lot of clearing out etc. Was not as conspicuous in the loose as usual. Is going to come under pressure to start if Kilcoyne remains fit.

2. Rob Herring 6: Solid if unspectacular. There was some improvement in the lineout and the South African born hooker always empties the tank.

3. Andrew Porter 7: Worked hard all day especially after being given a thorough examination by Wyn Jones at scrum time. Great footwork going into contact meant he carried over the gain line more often than not.

4. Tadhg Beirne 9: A brilliant game from the man whose father hails from Longford. Hard carries, turnovers and a big tackle count certainly justified the Kildare man’s inclusion from the start. Hard to know how he did not win the Man of the match gong.

5. James Ryan 5: Looked set for a big game and was making a mess of the Welsh lineout before going off after 20 minutes with a head knock. Will be needed at the peak of this power if Ireland are going to have any chance of turning over the French.

6. Peter O’Mahony 4: A player that always empties the tank and plays on the ragged edge. Ultimately cost his team the game with a needless high no arms clear out, which deserved a red.

7. Josh Van Der Flier 8: Had his best game in the colours of Ireland. Mixed up his usual high tackle count with great carries and was a nuisance at the breakdown.

8. CJ Stander 7: As always gave his all, with lots of big carries, the most memorable one, when he bounced Faletau. Stander deserves to be in the team but Doris' better guile and footwork at 8 was missed.

9. Conor Murray 6: Mixed up some good box kicking with some inaccurate passing. Really needs to be more of a running threat.

10. Johnny Sexton 6: Battled gainfully as always and was disappointed to go off with a head knock. Made some uncharacteristic errors kicking out of hand. Still the best we have in the position though.

11. James Lowe 6: Great going forward and used his big boot to clear Ireland lines on repeated occasions. However, was caught out badly for North's try.

12. Robbie Henshaw 9: A brilliant game from the Athlone man in defence and attack especially his thrust down the blindside to set up Beirnes try. Looked every inch the Lions starting 12.

13. Garry Ringrose 7: Solid defensively as usual and constantly probed in attack. However, his needless attempted offload ultimately led to North's try.

14. Keith Earls 6: Not his best outing in an Irish jersey, giving away a needless penalty and kicking out on the full. Is going to come under increasing pressure to start.

15. Hugo Keenan 8: Good performance from a player that is making 15 his own. Great positioning, solid under the high ball, good defensively and frequently popping up in attack.

Replacements: The whole Irish bench made a big impact, especially Henderson who came on early and the replacement front row of Kilcoyne, Kelleher and Furlong. Looks like reshuffle is going to be necessary next week.

Coaching Team: There was a lot of pregame optimism especially with the addition of O’Connell. The game plan looked spot on but was undermined by the early red card. Will have been frustrated by the concession of some needless penalties and some key moments that helped Wales to the win. The pressure is very much on Andy Farrell and anything less than a good performance against the French will only add to that.

Next up: So onwards to Lansdowne Road next Sunday, where the rising French side comes to town. It's going to be a tough one, Ireland will be firm underdogs but as Scotland showed on Saturday, the underdogs can win.

Ireland Six Nations Fixtures: Sunday, February 14: Ireland v France 3pm; Saturday, February 27: Italy v Ireland 2.15pm; Sunday, March 14: Scotland v Ireland 3pm; Saturday, March 20: Ireland v England 4.45pm