Ireland show positive signs of rebuild despite defeat in Six Nations opener in France

A ferocious defensive effort saw Ireland make 175 tackles in Le Mans

Women’s Six Nations: France 37 Ireland 17

An 11th loss in 11 visits to France but this performance certainly showed signs of a real Ireland rebuild. The two tries scored may have been as much about the team’s grit as anything else but it was two thirds of last season’s entire tally in that wooden spoon campaign and was fair reward for an altogether more organised performance.

This was certainly true of their much-improved defensive effort, with Ireland making 175 tackles and missing only 17. As ever, the unstinting Neve Jones led the way with 24 tackles, with everyone else putting their shoulders to the wheel, notably Brittany Hogan, Linda Djougang, Aoife Wafer and Dorothy Wall.

The midfield pairing of Aoife Dalton and Eve Higgins also had big games on both sides of the ball in what was, overall, a much more energised performance.

Admittedly France were, well, typically French and left a few scores behind, but save for the virtually unplayable, octopus-like Madoussou Fall (who was brought off with half an hour remaining) their offloading game (they made 22 to Ireland’s four) was largely contained, thanks to Ireland’s focus on double tackles.

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What made Ireland’s all the more commendable was that both their lineout and scrum came under increasing pressure as the match wore on, areas of their game that will need fixing next week and beyond.

As expected, Ireland cut their cloth to suit their measure with a conservative game plan, especially in the first half when Nicole Fowley regularly dropped into the pocket and played territory, before Dannah O’Brien replaced her at half-time and Ireland did show more attacking ambition in the second period.

Bearing in mind how little ball reached Béibhinn Parsons and Katie Corrigan on the wings, Ireland will certainly need to do so in a pivotal game against Italy at the RDS next Sunday.

To put the 5-2 try tally and 38-17 scoreline into context, France scored nine tries to none in last season’s 53-3 win in Cork, and a year previously in Toulouse scored six tries to one in a 40-5 victory. Furthermore, for what it’s worth, Ireland were 42-point underdogs with the bookies.

Ominously too, France struck first with barely two minutes on the clock. Their typically busy and influential scrumhalf Pauline Bourdon Sansus both earned the penalty in the corner with her strength over the ball saw Fowley penalised for holding on, and then sniped off the ensuing catch-and-drive to dummy and beat Dalton in finding an unoccupied fringe.

Importantly, Ireland resisted a siege on their line soon after, with some good last-ditch defending by fullback Lauren Delany and a rare overthrow by the normally reliable French hooker Agathe Sochat. After a good Irish maul and a second touch finder by Fowley, the Irish pack even earned a scrum penalty, which Fowley landed confidently from 37 metres.

However, Fall’s offloading was opening up Ireland’s hard-working defence and fullback Émilie Boulard sprang clear from Gaëlle Hermet’s offload. But after Edel McMahon’s tackle on Sochat, Jones won a vital turnover penalty under the posts.

A big hit by Wafer was backed up by Djougang and McMahon driving back Manaé Feleu with a double hit, and Hogan backed up a huge carry from deep inside her own 22 with a good defensive read to force an attacking lineout. But Jones’s throw missed Hannah O’Connor and her next was picked off.

Ireland soon had another couple of escapes. First Jones and O’Connor combined to hold up Charlotte Escudero over the line. then, after another Fall offload released Romane Ménager, the French number eight was denied by Dalton’s try-saving tackle before Annaëlle Deshaye knocked on when the home side looked sure to score.

All of which made the second French try from just inside halfway jarring, as Bourdon Sansus drew Wafer at the base of a ruck and sent Marine Ménager clear with a deft reverse pass behind her back for the winger to break clear and step Delany.

The 14,000 crowd broke into a full rendition of La Marseilliase

Even so, when McMahon was penalised for obstruction, France settled for a penalty by Lina Queyroi and after Fowley kicked out on the full, Ireland withstood one more attack to leave it 17-3 at the break.

By way of context, France led 27-3 despite a 21st minute red card in Cork at the halfway point in the corresponding game last year with five tries in the bag, and two years ago in Toulouse the home side also had a bonus point secured with four tries for a 26-0 interval lead.

Scott Bemand brought on Dannah O’Brien at outhalf in a direct swap for Fowley during the interval. But after a sequence of offloads by Romane Ménager, her sister Marine, Feleu and Boulard, France turned to their power game and Fall rounded off a sequence of close-range drives by crashing over.

Ireland were showing more in attack but after a nice interchange between Hogan and Dalton, the latter was penalised for side entry, and when Wafer’s break was undone when Wall’s offload went to Deshaye, Ireland had a let-off after an apparent try on debut by the 18-year-old Kelly Arbey was ruled out on review due to an offload off the deck by Nassire Konde clearly going forward.

Instead, just past the hour and with the French bench making an impact, particularly at scrum time, they turned to their maul for a bonus-point try for Sochat, which Queyroi again converted.

Ireland responded well with a patient lineout drive and sequence of rucks to earn a close-range tap penalty and after a strong carry by Djougang, Wafer took the ensuing pass from replacement scrumhalf Molly Scuffil-McCabe low to the ground to power over with unstoppable body positioning to score, O’Brien converting.

The riposte from Les Bleus came via their lineout mal again, as 20-year-old reserve hooker Elisa Riffonneau hit Kiara Zago and was then at the back of the drive to score, the referee Kat Roche effectively over-ruling her TMO over a barely discernible technical infringement.

Even so, Dalton chased the restart and scored a deserved try when beating Lina Tuy to a loose pass for a consolation score which will further imbue this team with some confidence for the crunch game against Italy next Sunday.

SCORING SEQUENCE – 3 mins: Bourdon Sansus try, Queyroi con, 7-0; 14: Fowley pen, 7-3; 32: Marine Ménager try, Queyroi con, 14-3; 38: Queyroi pen, 17-3; (half-time 17-3); 47: Fall try, Queyroi con, 24-3; 62: Sochat try, Queyroi con, 31-3; 71: Wafer try, O’Brien con, 31-10; 75: Riffonneau try, Bourgeois con, 38-10; 77: Dalton try, O’Brien con, 38-17.

FRANCE: Émilie Boulard; Kelly Arbey, Nassira Konde, Gabrielle Vernier, Marine Ménager; Lina Queyroi, Pauline Bourdon Sansus; Annaëlle Deshaye, Agathe Sochat, Assia Khalfaoui; Manaé Feleu (capt), Madoussou Fall; Charlotte Escudero, Gaëlle Hermet, Romane Ménager.

Replacements: Morgane Bourgeois for M Ménager (44 mins); Emeline Gros for Fall (51 mins); Ambre Mwayembe for Deshaye, Alexandra Chambon for Bourdon Sansus (both 61); Elisa Riffonneau for Sochat, Clara Joyeux for Khalfaoui (both 65); Kiara Zago for Feleu (67); Lina Tuy for Queyroi (72).

IRELAND: Lauren Delany (Sale Sharks/IQ Rugby); Katie Corrigan (Old Belvedere/Leinster), Eve Higgins (Railway Union/Leinster), Aoife Dalton (Old Belvedere/Leinster), Béibhinn Parsons (Blackrock College/Connacht); Nicole Fowley (Galwegians/Connacht), Aoibheann Reilly (Blackrock College/Connacht); Linda Djougang (Old Belvedere/Leinster), Neve Jones (Gloucester-Hartpury), Christy Haney (Blackrock College/Leinster); Dorothy Wall (Blackrock College/Munster), Hannah O’Connor (Blackrock College/Leinster); Aoife Wafer (Blackrock College/Leinster), Edel McMahon (Exeter Chiefs) Captain, Brittany Hogan (Old Belvedere /Ulster).

Replacements: Dannah O’Brien (Old Belvedere/Leinster) for Fowley (h-t); Grace Moore (Saracens/IQ Rugby) for McMahon (51 mins); Fiona Tuite (Old Belvedere/Ulster) for Wall (56); Sadhbh McGrath (Cooke/Ulster) for Haney, Molly Scuffil-McCabe (Leinster) for Reilly (both 63), Méabh Deely (Blackrock College/Connacht) for Corrigan (67); Sarah Delaney (Blackrock College/Leinster) for Wafer, Niamh O’Dowd (Old Belvedere/Leinster) for Djougang (both 77).

Referee: Kat Roche (USA).

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