France v Ireland: a defining fight for the Six Nations title

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Going into the Six Nations, France and Ireland were penned to be the two most likely teams to lift the trophy in March. Week two of the competition saw these two teams come face to face in an utterly captivating way that will no doubt be considered a defining match of the Six Nations. Ireland travelled to France on the high of utterly obliterating Wales – 29-7 – in Dublin, whilst France enjoyed great success against neighbours Italy, 37-10. With England having a loss to their name against Scotland, the value of this win for France or Ireland was even higher than believed before the tournament began.

The Stade de France was awash with tricolours, alongside many Irish fans present in strong voice, as the national anthems rung out across Paris. The shared sense of excitement and apprehension was tangible and the promise of intense and world-class was a guarantee.

Much like Bundee Aki’s explosive opening try in Ireland’s game against Wales the week before, France took the lead against Ireland in the second minute with a try by the French superstar Antoine Dupont. It is fair to say that Ireland were somewhat stunned by this commanding opening by les bleus, and found themselves outside of the usual rhythm that they operate so well in. They did, however, come back fighting with a frankly incredible try by Mark Hansen from the restart, a few minutes later. It cannot obscure the fact, however, that in the first half, much of France’s points came from penalty kicks given away by Ireland’s inconsistent discipline. A team that had dominated all aspects of the game against Wales were being suffocated and closed down by the confident French team.

WITH IRELAND AND ENGLAND LEVEL ON POINTS BEHIND THEM, ANY LOSS WILL BE PRAYED UPON. SO, IF fRANCE ARE ON TO WIN THIS TITLE, REally, IT MUST BE DONE IN GRAND SLAM FASHION

Indeed, the penalty taking side of France’s game is something that has significantly improved for the national side, compared to previous campaigns. In Melvyn Jaminet, France have found a consistent kicker which was not always a guarantee when Maxime Machenaud took responsibility in previous tournaments. The six penalties that Jaminet successful kicked contributed to over half of France’s overall score. There is a threatening air from all areas of the French team: a defensive brick wall in Uini Atonio, creative Damien Penaud and the miracle-making Toulouse scrum half, Antoine Dupont, who still has much to offer.

It was the first half that did the most damage for Ireland. The second half saw Ireland score two tries against France, Josh Van de Flier and Jamison Gibson-Park taking the fight to France and placing the match at a tipping point, either side merely fingertips away from the win. But, another penalty kick from Jaminet sealed the 30-24 victory for France and left Ireland disappointed.

France have won the Six Nations just three times and are well on the road to picking up a fourth win. France face Scotland next at Murrayfield. The Scottish side, after a disappointing, and tight, loss to Wales 20-17 on the same Saturday will need every bit of skill in their arsenal to beat the surging French team. With Ireland and England level on points behind France, any loss will be preyed upon. So, if France are on to win this title, really, it must be done in grand slam fashion. The inconsistency that France has, for so long, been associated with must be banished. France’s final fixture will be against England, in Paris, and the tension already feels as if it is mounting. The two sides have had a growing rivalry over the last few years, the fixture itself now known as “Le Crunch”, and will no doubt provide an incredibly entertaining evening of rugby.

Whilst much can happen in the final three weeks of the tournament, it is France who feel the hungriest for the title. Their game is not free from mistakes or inconsistencies, but they are growing as a team, gaining more wins as they go. For the last two years it has felt they have been on the fringes of brilliance but fallen at the final hurdle. It is France’s title to lose, France’s time to win – will anyone be able to bring down les bleus?