Declan Kidney rightly pointed out during the week that Ireland still have much to play for in 2012, with IRB ranking position set to determine seeding for the 2015 World Cup pool stage draw.
Still, I'm not so sure the obscure mathematics used to determine those rankings are the sort of thing that's going to fire up an Irish Six Nations crowd who knew the Triple Crown, Championship and Grand Slam horses had already bolted from the stable.
But there was still a job to be done, a tough one by the accounts of many Irish pundits leading up to kickoff. The gist of the overall pessimism was that Scots were unlucky not to have at least one in the win column, they came to Dublin with an supreme lineout, plus the home side were suffering badly with injuries all over the park.
And when it came to the supposed crucial “firsts” in the contest, these fears seem to have well founded. The first scrum led to a Scottish free. Our first lineout throw was chucked way too far and ended up in enemy hands. And the first two scoring chances fell to Greig Laidlaw who gratefully stroked both penalties over the bar giving the visitors as 6-0 head start.
However there were a couple of firsts yet to happen. On 11 minutes, Scots lock Jim Hamilton carried it into contact where he was met by (the yet again supreme) Stephen Ferris, Donncha Ryan and Gordon Darcy who clicked straight into “choke tackle” mode, and whatever about Andy Robinson's midweek mind games they were able to execute it perfectly and force a turnover, thus re-setting the tone of the Irish defence which for the most part has been superb in this campaign.
A few moments later, Ireland won a kickable penalty, but Sexton had no hesitation in holding the ball up to his face and and asking his skipper Rory Best if he agreed they should go for a set move. The hooker in turn had no hesitation in approving the plan.
As with any similar situation in sport, the wisdom of such a bold decision is directly related to its success, so when Ryan took a clean lineout, O'Mahony passed it on quickly and Best planted the ball over the line in the corner, it was of course proven to be a stroke of genius.
Then came the conversion, ironically further out than the penalty kick RTE analyst Donal Lenihan suggested Sexton wasn't too confident in making. Well, despite Sean Lamont's best efforts to get in the kicker's head, he got it over the bar, though going by the reaction to his second kick, which also made it, his contact with the ball was anything but perfect. Only thing I can criticise the Leinster outhalf for is not following that old sporting adage “if you screw up but it still works, make sure it looks like you meant it”!
So despite the early hiccups Ireland quickly got themselves into the lead, one which they were never to relinquish. And to be perfectly honest, that wasn't so much down to the Irish defence as it was to the extremely poor Scottish offence, which seemed to lurch from one touchline to the other like a drunken crab whenever it had the ball.
The one try they did manage seemed at first glance like it was a surging line break from an unstoppable Richie Gray. On further inspection you see he breaks the line first by Eoin Reddan, about half his size, going too high with his tackle on one side while on the other Tommy Bowe, who would have easily felled the giant, being taken out of it by the Scottish rookie full-hack Stuart Hogg.
Before my email inbox gets flooded with tartan taunts, I'd like to make it clear I think Hogg's block was accidental. He was simply running a line so as to take a sneaky offload but once Gray had gotten himself some momentum and open space, there was certainly no stopping him.
So now there was just the three points in it and once more Ireland showed a quality that has been prevalent in Leinster all season, that being an ability to strike back immediately after conceding. Sexton's restart caught the Scots napping and before you could sing a bar of “500 Miles” Ireland were back on the front foot in the 22 pummelling with the phases and eventually notching their third try of the evening courtesy of Andrew Trimble right on the halftime whistle.
The third quarter was easily the most subdued of the four. The only real try-scoring chance was that which fell to Tommy Bowe, after his outhalf found him yet again with a perfectly weighted kick. There's all sorts of ways to argus over that incident. If he was deemed tackled, should Morrison not have rolled away? For me the most logical call would have been a stalemate between the two players on the ground and since Ireland had possession they should have had a 5m scrum.
But what got my attention the most in that period was the substitution on 53 minutes. I get that Rory Best was nursing a rib injury so it was probably planned for O'Gara to come on and assume the captaincy. That's fine...but did Tomás O'Leary, who let's face it is a blow-in to this particular Six Nations squad, really have to come on for Eoin Reddan at that moment?
I know I have argued for the provincial halfback pairing in the past and in general I still do, but in this case Reddan was having a fine outing, and his quick distribution topped off by his (dare I say it Stringer-esque) opportunism for Ireland's second try surely had him in the frame for man-of-the-match. When someone is playing so well, no matter what your pre-match plan, he deserves to left on in my book.
The way it played out, he was only made out like a blow-in himself who could do nothing to force his way ahead of Conor Murray in the pecking order, which for me, is no way to run any team in any sport. There was only an 8-point lead for Ireland at that point so it was still very much a contest, and the perception was that Reddan wasn’t up to the task of seeing it through.
In the end it was Donncha Ryan who took the man of the match award, and I won't say it wasn't deserved, but I will say that he played every bit as well as I would have expected him to had he started every game as so many think he should. I can only assume that much like Reddan and probably Peter O'Mahony (who also had an impressive outing), he is merely keeping the starter’s jersey warm for somebody else whatever he does.
So then with the benches mostly empty and the clock ticking into the final quarter, the Scots got themselves some rare front foot ball of their own in Ireland's 22, and there is certainly a case to be made that Lee Jones having his bell rung at this point gave the home side a chance to re-set their defence. Personally, I'd be inclined to think we would have cleared the danger anyway.
Of course everyone is delighted to hear that Jones is making “good progress” after that nasty clash of heads with Trimble - I really feared for the lad as he fell to the turf with his arms by his sides, not to mention when his head whipped off the ground after the fall.
But Ireland were able to clear the danger and soon found themselves back down the other end creating chances again. And here I feel a paragraph or two are required for the Max Evans sin-binning incident.
First of all, though all weekend folks have gone out of their way to bash the officials, I know I may seem one-eyed in this but I challenge anyone to tell me they didn't get the call absolutely right in this case. Earls clipped it forward, Evans tugged at his arm impeding his progress. There was no way to know if a try would have been scored, so no penalty try, and a 10-minute rest for Evans.
I also would like to address those who berated our centre (many of them Irish) for his tumble after the infraction, particularly the notion that he was somehow reacting “like a wimpy soccer player”.
I'm not a fan of exaggerated diving, but I am a fan of professional sport, and I absolutely 100% back Earls for what he did and would encourage anyone else in a similar position to do the same. He hardly went down like he'd been shot, for crying out loud! He simply went with the very obvious challenge and tried to sell it – for all he knew, there could have been a penalty try for him in it.
To those who say there's “no place in rugby” for actions like that, I'd say instead there shouldn't be any place in the sport for such unnecessary snobbery. A little gamesmanship is part and parcel, and if you dislike what goes in soccer, don't watch it, then you won't need to keep making comparisons!
Anyway, back to the match, all that was left was Fergus McFadden's impressive cameo. I have a feeling Luke Fitzgerald's presence in the training squad during the week must have influenced him (afraid to be another shirt-warmer like Reddan & Ryan) and given only a couple of minutes of game time you could see he was determined to make the most of it and was duly rewarded with the fourth try that made the final margin so comfortable.
So as Chris Pollock blew for full-time, not only had the Aviva Stadium crowd been subdued all afternoon, it seemed so too had the Scots who couldn’t change their side of the scoreboard at all in the second half. A good win & performance for Ireland, but with Andy Robinson's side seeming so limited, I still can't be sure how to rate this Six Nations campaign.
So far we have failed once more the Welsh, handily dispatched the wooden spoon contenders, and kissed our sisters in Paris. If only we had the chance to, oh I don't know, stuff the English on St Patrick’s Day in their own backyard – maybe then Declan can get a thumbs up from us? Sorry , but right now I can only answer that question with a subdued “meh”. Come back to me at full-time next Saturday. JLP
ALSO THIS WEEKEND
Friday March 9
IRELAND CLUB XV 26-21 SCOTLAND CLUBS
IRELAND U20s 26-0 SCOTLAND U20s
Always comfortable for the Wolfpuppies, a super individual effort early on by Shane Leyden opened the scoring, although they found possession hard to hold on to the 2nd & 3rd quarters. MotM & scrum half Luke McGrath darted in for a 2nd and Jack Conan added a third. Jackson had problems with the boot in the first half, will need to sort if Slam to be clinched at Adams Park next week.
IRELAND 20-0 SCOTLAND (Women's Six Nations)
Saturday March 10
WALES 24-3 ITALY
Had the Italians not come merely to defend this could well have been closer. In the end they tackled themselves to death tho the Welsh were certainly too cocky for their own good, needing tries from deep by Roberts and Cuthbert (my MotM) to pull away. If the French can still smell a Championship next week Gatland's 2nd Slam will be hard earned. George Clancy about as popular in Wales now as Rolland.
Sunday March 11
FRANCE 22-24 ENGLAND
Huge win for England, though Morgan Parra proved when he came on that had he started things could have been very different. Two early tries built a 11pt lead similar to Ireland's last week then the French didnt wake up until the 3rd qtr. In the end a strong finish from Croft sealed it tho the French once more had a late drop goal chance to pinch it but Trinh-Duc's effort fell short.