Ireland challenged to show true character in remaining Six Nations matches

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France's Teddy Thomas (centre) gathers possession during the Guinness Six Nations match at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin. Picture date: Sunday February 14, 2021.
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By Ed Elliot, PA

Andy Farrell admits Ireland’s spirit will be severely tested after hopes of Guinness Six Nations glory were effectively ended just two games into the tournament following a 15-13 defeat to favourites France.

The Irish suffered successive losses at the start of a Six Nations campaign for the first time and no country has ever recovered from that predicament to win the title.

Ronan Kelleher’s maiden international try helped keep the depleted hosts in contention against Les Bleus but they were unable to avoid another damaging setback following last weekend’s loss in Wales.

Head coach Farrell, who was without a host of key men in Dublin, including captain Johnny Sexton, has challenged his players to stick together and produce a strong finish to the competition.

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“Our approach, our attitude doesn’t change,” he said

“I’ve just said to the boys in the changing room that we talk about the strength of the group and the togetherness of the group and how close they are – we’ll see how close we are now, we’ll show our true character because it’s about finishing (the tournament well).

“We’re not even half way through, but making sure in these next three games we’re at our best, and that approach doesn’t change no matter what.”

Andy Farrell discusses the defeat. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA

Tries either side of half-time from Charles Ollivon and Damian Penaud, plus five points from the boot of Matthieu Jalibert, earned France a first Aviva Stadium victory since 2011.

Ireland responded through an opportunistic score from replacement hooker Kelleher and, while fly-halves Ross Byrne and Billy Burns contributed five and three points respectively, they again fell short.

A disrupted build-up to the must-win encounter was dominated by skipper Sexton being embroiled in a dispute with a French doctor about his concussion record.

The 35-year-old and vice-captain James Ryan were subsequently ruled out through head injuries, while a hamstring problem sidelined scrum-half Conor Murray and flanker Peter O’Mahony was suspended following his red card in Cardiff.

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Farrell was pleased with the response of his squad to a challenging week but left frustrated by their lack of killer instinct.

He said: “[I have] mixed emotions, really. One that’s unbelievably proud of how they’ve handled themselves this week, regarding all of the controversy etcetera, unbelievably proud of their efforts – there are a lot of lads that are hurting mentally and physically by the obvious work rate, putting their bodies on the line for their country.

“But at the same time, Test matches are there to be won, especially at home and we rue a few decisions that we made along that way.

“Even though a couple of days ago people were writing us off, we never wrote ourselves off, the game was there to be won and it was a hard-fought contest but it’s one that slipped away from us in the end.”

Iain Henderson became the 108th player to captain Ireland but was temporarily forced off by a nasty head injury. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA

Ireland temporarily lost stand-in captain Iain Henderson and prop Cian Healy to head injuries in the second half, while number 10 Burns did not return from his assessment.

Henderson appeared at the post-match press conference with stitches above his right eye following a nasty clash with team-mate Healy, which left both men bloodied.

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The Ulster lock said he was physically feeling “good” but frustrated at Ireland conceding the opening try to Ollivon when France were down to 14 men due to Bernard Le Roux being sin-binned for a deliberate trip on Keith Earls.

“I felt we were in good positions a lot of the game – more so than France – but France got their opportunities and took them,” Henderson said.

“When we have an extra man on the pitch, we have to capitalise.”

France have been playing an exciting brand of rugby under Fabien Galthie and are rapidly moving into contention for a home World Cup in 2023.

Despite only showing glimpses of their scintillating best on Sunday, they secured a ninth win from 11 games since the appointment of their head coach to back up last week’s win over Italy and move top of the table.

Galthie, who appeared close to tears at the full-time whistle, said: “It is always emotional and when it finishes positively you do release a bit of emotion and I think the TV viewers could see the spirit we had.

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France head coach Fabien Galthie was close to tears following victory in Dublin. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA

“There was a good positive energy and we were all grouped around the cause.

“It’s only sport but in today’s situation, sport doesn’t have people in venues, so we are emotional but it is also joy.

“We start every match with a lot of ambition, a lot of determination and, at the moment, we arrive at the match ready and we saw that today.”

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