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.
“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.”
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.
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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.
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.”
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