Stats aren’t everything in sports, but in rugby union when you dominate your opposition in possession, territory, scrums & lineouts and manage to keep your “penalties conceded” count in single digits, you are always going to give yourself the chance to win well.
Ireland did all of the above in their Six Nations opener and when the chances came, we were able to put them away for what turned out to be a comfortable enough victory over a Scotland side not good enough to break down our defence and unable to sustain their own for the full 80 minutes.
Of course things could have been a lot different had the 6-3 scoreline in the 39th minute made it to the halftime interval!
One of the key facets of the Irish approach, and not just under Joe Schmidt but also going back further, is that it’s vital we put points on the board early. We all know what happened last season when we failed to do so at Murrayfield, and to their credit they came to Dublin with a plan to frustrate us that was working well.
But when we won a penalty that would have been kickable for Sexton as the clock neared 40m, there didn’t seem to be any hesitation for kicking to the corner. I got the impression that they didn’t fancy going into the dressing-room without at least try under their belts! Still, it was good to see them backing themselves and even better to see that faith justified by a score.
Simple lineout/maul, few phases, overlap created, ball sent quickly outside, Andrew Trimble try. Maybe the Scots’ coverage out wide wasn’t the best but it was still a well worked score and provided a huge sense of relief for the home crowd.
With the conversion missed and the margin only 8, the focus of the halftime punditry was on the “importance of the first score” of the second half. I have used that phrase many a time myself, but often it can be misleading.
The Scots came out determined to gain any early advantage they could and managed to turn receiving the kickoff into an attacking lineout in our 22. For me I reckon we did well to restrict them to a penalty at that point, though we still needed to be sure to make the most of the next similar situation when it fell to us.
Just a few minutes later Rory Best pinched a scrum against the head (got a bit of slagging on Twitter for calling it a “counter-hook” but still think the phrase was justified as it happened so long after the put-in) we won another penalty in the corner and once again there was faith put in the lineout/maul and this time it was Jamie Heaslip and Rory Best who combined for the put-down with the skipper-for-the-day credited with the score.
What characterised this overall performance for me was the fact that it was a team effort, and this was most borne out by the nature of the third try which put the game to bed. The clock read 69:22 when Trimble caught the ball inside his own half at one end of the pitch; his first pass was to Rob Kearney who in the end provided the finish on 70:44.
What happened in between was a joy to watch, with positive involvement from Murray, Moore, Sexton, BOD, Cronin, Dave Kearney, O’Donnell, Toner, and towards the end a neat offload from Tuohy and a strong burst from Henry. All of which softened up the defence enough for Mr 50-cap Kearney to get from where you see him in the lead photo to the try-line and that was that.
Scotland can take some heart from their performance…their tactics were sound keeping us at bay for as long as they did and despite losing Maitland to what looks like a long-term injury they do have the tools to do some damage (maybe not always the right kind of damage as Ross Ford’s boot got a bit fresh with Sexton at one point). Their schedule gets tougher as they go through the tournament but they could well cause an upset at some point.
My highlight was the chat between referee Craig Joubert and Scots lock Jim Hamilton : “Every time something funny happens, you seem to be involved” “But I’m just sticking up for myself” (all paraphrased). Not surprisingly, Jim was substituted moments later!
As for Joubert, he wasn’t perfect by a long chalk but we have to take heart that he only pinged us 7 times overall and only 3 times in kickable areas…he’s our man in the middle when we go to Twickenham.
From a fan’s perspective while the home crowd was subdued throughout the first half, that was understandable given the stalemate produced by the two defences. Around the 50m mark it was heartening to hear a chorus of Ireland’s Call come from the stands as opposed to the provincial anthems we often hear at that point.
And while many in both print and social media are simply focusing on groups of players from certain provinces, as I have already said the main feature of this display for me was the team effort, and that made the decision for man of the match an extremely difficult one, which has to be a good thing.
As Joe Schmidt was quick to point out post-match, the entire starting back row did extremely well. Jamie Heaslip took the top accolade and it is true, he put in a typically commanding display from number 8 and handled his captain’s duties well despite them being thrust on him so late.
There must also be honourable mention for folks like Chris Henry, who not only tackled & turned Scots ball over but offered a very SOB-like contribution to the third try, Cian Healy who helped greatly with the scrum dominance and had some trademark bursts of his own, and Conor Murray, who seems to have found an extra gear when we’re on the front foot and had some crucially-accurate box kicks.
But despite all those efforts, if I were to award three stars as they do in ice hockey, the third would go to Sexton, who marshalled the offence brilliantly when he had the chance (including of course the strong broken play charge & precision pass that almost put in Heaslip), the second to Rob Kearney, not only for the try but for leading the “yards gained” stats and being solid as a rock at the back, including a cool as you like bout of keeping the ball in and clearing at a crucial stage in the first half.
Finally for me, a “man of the match” award goes to someone who if you took away their contribution, you probably wouldn’t have had the same result. With the score at 21-6 the Scots didn’t give up and as they pressed in our 22, it was Peter O’Mahony with the turnover. When Dave Denton reached the outer limits of our defences and stretched out an arm for the try-line, it was Peter O’Mahony (albeit with help from Murray) who made it around to keep him out.
He always seemed to be the one to show up when we were being challenged the most so he got the nod from where I was sitting. Plus, he easily won the “anthem game-face” competition, which is always worth a few points in my book. Must be a Munster thing…other good exponents of this are the “two Donnchas” O’Callaghan and Ryan!
But it doesn’t really matter who gets the top award - though things weren’t perfect and apparently Joe had some “choice” words for the lads afterwards, I dare say we all would have taken that final score as the game kicked off and it’s great to see glimpses of the squad working so well together at this early stage of the competition and hopefully it can only get better.
Plus, consider the following team :
Jones, Bowe, Fitzgerald, Darcy, McFadden, Jackson, Reddan. McGrath, Strauss, Moore, O’Connell, McCarthy, Henderson, O’Donnell, Copeland.
That’s a XV made up of players who didn’t start on Sunday but should be available for the rest of this tournament. We’re going to hear a lot of talk over the coming days about six-day turnarounds, the fact that the Welsh can only get better after a shaky start, all sorts of negative points about our next match, all of which are valid.
But don’t let them go without also feeling some positive vibes because I saw plenty of evidence on Sunday that this squad is more than good enough to get where they want to be. JLP
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