Monday, February 11, 2019

SCOTLAND-13 IRELAND-22



“I just think it's brilliant. I'd want them to relax, enjoy a drink tonight, they've a week off, and enjoy each other's company and you know what? We're back on the horse again.” 

It wasn't that ROG and Matt Williams, who spoke before him, were overly critical about Ireland's performance on The Channel Formerly Known As TV3's panel after the full time whistle on Saturday, rather it was that Shane Jennings was SO positive with his reaction that it was refreshing to hear.

We often see reactions after victories for Leinster and Ireland where the initial response goes straight to things that didn't work on the day, so much that you almost feel compelled to ask the commentator : “Eh, you DO know we won, right?”

If you only look over this eighty minutes from the perspective of this year's Six Nations Championship, or even as an individual game of rugby union in its own right, then you won't leave yourself much to write home about. 

Given how the other matches have gone so far, it's very likely that Ireland needed a fourth try to remain in contention for top spot this season, and when it came to the rugby itself it was a day where defences held sway. 

But this is a World Cup year, one where Ireland can genuinely feel they can at the very least dispel our final four hoodoo.  And one of our top priorities, especially after what happened in 2015, is to build ourselves a squad that can keep performance levels where we need them to be throughout a schedule of seven matches in as many weeks against the top test sides on the planet. 

So before I harp on how the match itself progressed, I first want to look at the contributions of a group of players from our matchday 23, all of whom could well be called upon in Japan, and all of whom did well overall in difficult circumstances in Murrayfield. 


Bundee Aki & Chris Farrell

Aki shipped a couple of bad penalties it's true, though I thought the first was harsh.  And Farrell got himself isolated in the second half leading to a turnover, also true.   And neither really showed much on the attacking side of things. 

But despite all of the above, I actually think their display was pivotal to our winning. It's not just the amount of tackles they put in that needs to be considered (though Aki was up among our leaders with 15) it's their presence in tandem throughout the several long series of Scottish phases we held out.  Time after time the first up tacklers would do their job, but more importantly whenever the home side thought they had a chance to send it out wide, it was generally green 12 & 13 there snuffing it out. 

Also it was a great kick chase by Farrell that forced Tommy Seymour into the error that led to our opening try. 

We conceded by one try all afternoon, and even that came from an interception.  They were simply not going to cross our line and for me that's a great result given we were deploying our second string centres. 


Quinn Roux

If we were struggling for front line centres, those issues were much much worse when it came to second rows. You'd think after the Grand Slam our trio of Toner, Ryan & Hendo would be a collective ‘lock’ (pun intended of course) for the squad but then we go and get Tadhg Beirne thrown into the mix for good measure.  

So when you're forced to do without three of the four, it's easy to assume that arguably our most crucial set piece, the lineout, will suffer.  And given the way selections have gone before there may well have been many a raised eyebrow at Quinn Roux being chosen ahead of Dillane, yet he called a perfect game and put himself about around the park at other times as well, mostly in the area of clearing out and latching. 


Jack Conan

Impressive and understated in equal measure.  He really stood out on the second watch.  Several strong carries, many of which got us back on the front foot after the Scots had knocked us back, and employed good footwork at the back of the scrum as well to help towards the awarding of penalties. He also led our tackling charts with 19. 


Dave Kilcoyne

My Munster Man-crush does it again.  Felled several Scots with his first carry, in a crucial set of exit phases no less, and never stopped.  I'd say he's worked himself into a position where Jack McGrath will have to fight his way back into the 23. 


Ultan Dillane

Slotted seamlessly into our lineout at a time when it was badly needed. Great takes on our throw and even managed to foil one of theirs.  An outstanding contribution from himself and Roux to reward the faith shown in them by Joe Schmidt - it wasn't as though their responsibilities were any less than those ahead of them in the Irish pecking order either. 


Joey Carbery

Saved the best for last. I presume all those Leinster fans who decried Carbery's move to Thomond Park are also Ireland fans, and if so, Saturday is where we saw some payoff from the move.  

Yes, the interception was bad. And yes, he had a bit of luck in making his break ahead of the Earls try as Dell and Harley got in each other's way trying to tackle him.  But that final pass on the run demonstrated exactly the kind of composure we'll need in Japan should Sexton be unavailable, and having a prolonged shift where we still came out on top is bound to do wonders for his confidence. 

So now hopefully you'll see why I went for that title of the writeup, although the TV network mentioning the actual show every five minutes also served to etch the phrase into my brain throughout. 

In my preview I thought we should probably go the conservative route, and that we certainly did.  Don't try anything too flashy in attack, force the opposition to take risks and thus make mistakes, and put most of our emphasis on maintaining the integrity of our defensive line. 

The Scots for their part were clearly buoyed by their overall performance last week and started out determined to make it two home wins from two, but even in those early stages it was clear we'd be tough to break down.  Ref Romain Poite didn't frustrate me as much as Garcès had the week before (although he did draw criticism from Laidlaw - were his borderline calls really that one-sided? I don't think so) yet his early ping of Aki seemed cruel as he had time to warn the centre not to go for the ball, something he went on to do in later stages of the match. 

So that had the home side on the board after just six minutes but we got straight back at them from the restart when it was knocked on giving us our first attacking position. 

The home D also started well and after 10 phases got us nowhere a mixup between Sexton and Stockdale gave the Scots a chance for a quick counter, one that Stuart Hogg was happy to go for. Trouble was he suffered what looked like a late hit after his chip forward and never seemed right afterwards. 

Meanwhile as we ran the ball back Stockdale found himself in a bit of space on the wing, kicked ahead, got good support from several teammates and Farrell pressurised Seymour enough to throw a wayward pass which ended up in the grateful arms of Conor Murray - try Ireland. 

Sexton pulled is conversion wide, something that would normally be a surprise but not when you factor in that he had just received treatment for the first of several late hits. 

A few minutes later on our next decent attacking position, Sexton put up what looked like a pointless high ball into the Scottish 22, though on second watch I think he realised Hogg was struggling with his arm and if so it wasn't a bad move to test it out at that moment.  Full credit to Hogg, he made the catch, called the mark and even sent an excellent touch finder before being hauled ashore. 

Still, from the ensuing Irish lineout Ireland were able to strike again.  Once more it was Sexton and Stockdale combining to make the space, although the Ulster winger did have the benefit of the ref's positioning to help him through.  Once clear he simply turned on the jets and there was no stopping him. 

Again Sexton got clobbered late after he got the ball away, so luckily the conversion was from under the posts. 12-3 was a very pleasing scoreline for us by the end of the first quarter. 

The Scots came straight back at us, and while they were keen to try every trick in the book to catch us unawares, even a quick tap penalty from Russell from 5m out didn't manage it.  The TMO was asked to look at a potential try in the corner but thankfully Rory Best was able to draw attention to an earlier forward pass this time. 

As time went on, it was clear that Sexton was also struggling.  Joe said after the match that it was actually a stray Irish boot in a ruck that did for him but surely the amount of attention he received also took its toll.  Murray was also on the receiving end several times throughout and I fear it's up to us to find a way to negate this tactic between now and the World Cup if we are to get maximum game time from our star halfbacks. 

So Carbery was on for only five minutes when he threw an interception to Finn Russell, who popped up an excellent pass when taken down to his centre Johnson who instinctively ran a perfect line to evade the other scrambling Irish tacklers to bring the Scots back into the match. 

But while we failed to get a fourth try ourselves on the day, our defensive stand at the end of the first half certainly felt like one.  It all started with more bad luck for Carbery as a tentative kick through from Russell ricocheted off the outhalf's leg and ended up as a 5m lineout for our hosts. 

Then, although James Ryan brilliantly swatted down the lineout, possession still went back to the Scots and after an energy-sapping 25 phases with the green cordon holding firm on each one, Johnny Gray knocked on and that saw out the half. 

Whether our relative comfort in the second half was more our boost in confidence from that stand or the home side being demoralised by it I'm not quite sure, although I do believe Hogg was missed by his team overall more than Sexton.  Russell just couldn't find that X-factor to break us down. 

In fairness, Gregory Townsend's men weren't too shabby at the tackling thing either, as their stats clearly show; five of their starting forwards were credited with 23 or more.  Hooker McInally was also a pest at the breakdown.  

With all the talk about quality alternatives to elite players, the contribution of the returning Rob Kearney cannot be ignored.  While I'd be surprised if Henshaw didn't improve given more games at 15, in reality he is needed elsewhere if fit and it was great to see Rob not only being a steady hand at the back, but also making several quality contributions going forward as well.

And as I stated earlier, impressive and all as Carbery's final long pass to Earls was for our third try, it only came about because two Scottish tacklers ran into each other trying to stop him.  Their decent day at the office defensively should not be forgotten when preparing or our pool opener in Japan. 

The final quarter saw us chasing the bonus point try but the only scoring was an exchange of penalty kicks.  I thought we had a good chance with a scrum at the very end that looked like Poite could have pinged to put us close to their line but he wasn't having it and the match fizzled out. 

So going back to Jenno's point, it was a good win for Ireland considering the disappointment the week before.  Six points behind the leaders isn't quite where we want to be after two rounds but with England still to play in Cardiff, it's not outside the realm of possibility that we could still be in contention when we head to the Welsh capital ourselves in round 5. 

But whatever we say about this match let it not be without the context of the good displays we showed we can get out of the so-called fringe players in our squad.  Chances are we'll be calling on each and every one of them in Japan so it's comforting to know we've got such talent at our disposal. JLP


Later this week we'll have a guest post from Keego plus  Mark Jackson's Six Nations Team Of The Round on Tuesday, Harpin Points on Wednesday, Telly post on Thursday and our Zebre v Leinster preview on Friday.  Plus of course every morning our Front5 quotes & links.  Do stay tuned!

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