Irish Examiner columnists Ronan O’Gara and Donal Lenihan both believe the positives of Ireland’s opening Six Nations victory in France outweigh the disappointing performance that preceded Johnny Sexton’s epic game-winning drop goal.
The former Ireland stars were speaking at the Irish Examiner Breakfast of Champions in Cork’s Clayton Hotel yesterday, having returned from Paris after witnessing the breathtaking finish that handed Joe Schmidt’s Ireland team a 15-13 victory at Stade de France.
There were clear signs from within the Irish camp that improvements would need to be made after the victory sealed by fly-half Sexton’s magisterial long-range kick following a sequence of 41 phases overshadowed an otherwise error-strewn and tryless performance. And those were matched by media criticism of what was a poor spectacle before the thrilling conclusion.
Yet both O’Gara, now a coach in New Zealand with Super Rugby champions Crusaders, and former Ireland captain Lenihan agreed that victory on the opening weekend of the championship was of paramount importance.
“Performance is secondary, especially in the first game,” O’Gara said. “It’s all about momentum.
“The most important thing getting out of there was the win and I think people beforehand probably just took it for granted that Ireland were going to win in France and I don’t understand that mindset.
“It’s an extremely difficult place to go and there were periods of the game where Ireland looked very comfortable. You go in there and if you don’t make the lead better than six or seven points, the French are going to have a purple patch.
“They didn’t even need a purple patch, they had the brilliance of Teddy Thomas and after that then they did have a purple patch, winning the penalty from the scrum which gave them the opportunity to kill the game with (Anthony) Belleau’s penalty (missed in the 77th minute).
“That would have been a four-point lead and there’s question marks around that too from a French point of view, why would you let Belleau take it when (regular kicker Maxime) Machenaud was on the pitch?
“So France weren’t ruthless and fast forward to the end of the game and Ireland and Johnny Sexton was devastatingly ruthless.”
Lenihan, asked to mark the Ireland performance out of 10, replied: “Well, 78 to 83 (minutes) was probably 11 out of 10, the previous 78 was probably six and a half.
“Having looked at it since I now think it’s the perfect scenario for Ireland in that you won a game you probably would have lost had Belleau or Machenaud taken that penalty. All of a sudden you go into camp, you’re euphoric because of the manner of the win and because you won in Paris and it hasn’t happened that often.
“Then there’ll be a dose of reality because you’re addressing the issues that didn’t go quite as well but you’ve won away. Ireland had only won one in five of their last Six Nations away games so getting that away monkey off your back, three home games, and the focus will shift to Wales and their game with England, the game of the championship next weekend.
“So it’s almost as if Ireland can now get on with their business out of the limelight to a degree, at least for another week or two.
“So overall, areas of concern but given the personnel involved and the management set-up with Ireland, I wouldn’t be worried that they can’t be rectified.”
As for Sexton, O’Gara said his game-winning drop kick from 45 metres was the result of a number of factors and rewrote the assessment of his performance following a 63rd-minute penalty miss when Ireland were leading 12-6.
It was a testament to his relationship with half-back partner Conor Murray and the fly-half’s excellent execution having already impressed with two other kicks in that 41-phase sequence, the restart following Belleau’s missed penalty and his crossfield kick to Keith Earls midway through the sequence to advance Ireland from their to 10-metre line to France’s 10m line.
“What was pleasantly surprising for me, was that at that stage I thought they were going to have to play 60 phases to give him a realistic shot.”
“That makes it a different narrative because if we had lost that ball from a crosskick, or a knock-on, for me watching it was like, okay, we’ve accepted it. I think you would have seen a load of four and five out of 10s in terms of individual performances and Johnny’s missed kick would have been highlighted.
“So they’re the tiny margins you’re talking about.”