Monday, September 23, 2019


So here we are, four days and eight matches in to RWC2019 at the time of posting, with only the odd-number of teams in each pool preventing some nations from having taken their bow.

There may not have been any eyebrow-raising upsets as yet, but rugby being rugby, you can be sure there were plenty of talking points, particularly in the area of referee's decisions.

Why was this tackle considered too high when that one wasn't? Why wasn't this guy pinged for not coming through the gate? Why are people complaining about this guy not coming through the gate when he clearly was? Some might say that's annoying, but I reckon that's rugby behaving exactly as it should, once we all know the limits to which we can bring our unmovable opinions.

In the midst of this opening weekend furore, there has been Joe Schmidt's boys in green. As Irish fans we have of course been interested with the competition as a whole, but despite all our scheming and schedule-sculpting in order to have our eyeballs trained on a screen for every match, there was only one that was going to stand out.

And the consensus in the build up was pretty clear. We were definitely favourites to win on the day, but should we be in any way off our game, the Scots had plenty in their side who could hurt us, so nothing could be taken for granted.

I have to say I did raise a bit of an eyebrow when I saw Stuart Hogg shaping to kickoff for Gregor Townsend's men. It's not that he's unable to do it well by any stretch, and it's quite possible he has done it before, but the thought did cross my mind that it doesn't show a whole lot of faith in your outhalf, particularly when it's one known for putting boot to ball.

But once that Gilbert egg was launched into the Yokohama sky, I couldn't care less who had taken it. We're finally here. All that time planning, debating, agonizing about tough selections and praying for minimal injuries was over and now the games could begin. And who better to get our opening touch than James Ryan, a massive addition to Ireland's cause since that bitter disappointment in Cardiff back in 2015.

The opening few minutes were understandably tense for both sides. The Scots overthrew their first lineout, Sexton had a kick charged down; possession ping-ponged back and forth before the clock had even registered two minutes until Stuart Hogg did much to answer my kickoff query by planting a decent kick to touch in our 22.

You took a deep breath the moment you realised the first Irish dart was coming, didn't you? Go on, it's ok to admit it; I know I did. Let's face it - after all that has happened in recent times it was hard for us to avoid making the success of this early set-piece somehow symbolic of Ireland's chances in the whole tournament, crazy though that may seem.

Well if it was playing on the minds of our forwards, it certainly didn't show. Despite James Ryan being the likely target, it was Peter O'Mahony who safely gathered the ball from the two position; and after the maul cocooned around him, Conor Murray then launched a clearance that had good distance yet found Tommy Seymour rather than touch.

Now we had the game's first real series of attacking phases, but try as they might the Scots were unable to find a gap up the middle, so in an effort to get the ball to the wider channels, Duncan Taylor hastily threw one behind his man and into touch. Time for dart number two. Breathing was easier this time, though only a little bit.

Up went O'Mahony again, down came possession for his team again. Murray went for another kick but this one was more contestable and although we didn't get it back directly, there was plenty of chasing done to ensure we did eventually.

Now we had the opportunity for some phases of our own to test the Scottish D for weak spots, and it wasn't long before big Iain Henderson managed to find one, though rather than barging through a soft shoulder as locks are wont to do, he managed instead a quick cheeky show and go which got him from the 22 all the way to the 5m line, giving us front foot ball in a position where nothing short of a try will satisfy the coaching ticket.

Sure enough after a few phases of carries around the line set things up, it was that man James Ryan providing a perfect bookend to his first touch by getting the ball down and settling all the early Sunday morning nerves back at home just nicely.

When Sexton added the easy extras, it completed an opening seven minutes of play where we displayed comfortable prowess at lineouts, defensive accuracy, attacking decision-making and ability to finish point-scoring opportunities.

Speaking of Sexton, I don't think it was a great outing for him, if only by his own lofty standards. But having overcooked a crossfield kick which was easily marked by Sean Maitland, our world class out half provided a bit of skill that I reckon has been overlooked and could have transformed the match had this passage gone the other way,

Maitland spotted a gap behind the Irish cover and took the free kick quickly; his placement was good in that it found grass and rolled into our 22 to stop before our try line, forcing Sexton to play the ball. It was very possible that he could have either been caught in possession by chasers or worse still have his clearance kick blocked, but with a little shimmy he managed to not only beat the first challenger, but also plant a perfect halfway-seeking missile into touch.

From there the Irish defence was able to keep Finn Russell's attempts to think his way over, around and through us at bay; our centres doing their job with clinical accuracy as first Garry Ringrose provided the crunching hit before Bundee Aki followed up with a perfect strip. Within moments Wayne Barnes was signalling another penalty for us, which meant we had gone from deep in our own 22 to a lineout throw in theirs within two minutes.

Now the lineout target was Henderson, and when the Scottish pack shipped a pen at the maul, we went to the Ulsterman again. It was like we weren't taking 'no try' for an answer, and on the second attempt skipper Rory Best managed to position himself over the line to get the ball down and become the third-oldest try-scorer at a Rugby World Cup.

From here followed the nearest the Scots ever got to a 'purple patch', although their gains in this time resulted more from our actions than theirs. Sexton missed the conversion, Andrew Conway knocked on a relatively easy catch, and although our halfbacks scrambled well when Seymour found some space up our touchline, shortly afterwards Jack Conan (an early blood replacement for Josh van der Flier) was pinged despite being pinned in a ruck for not rolling away allowing Laidlaw to kick his side's duck off the scoreboard.

But if they were to take any momentum from those three points, their chance came when Jacob Stockdale attempted to catch a ball over his head only to kick it over the touchline giving the Scots a handy attacking lineout they wouldn't have expected. "All" they needed to do was get past that green wall...

Once again we saw the benefits that can come from what some call "defending too narrow", when Finn Russell had to hurry or over-think every decision until eventually the ball went to ground and this time Andrew Conway was able to fly hack it deep into Scottish territory, meaning it was their turn to recover; would they be able to repeat Sexton's earlier Houdini impression?

Well to be fair to Stuart Hogg, the luck of the Irish was in full effect as the ball somehow managed to find the base of the post meaning rather than giving him an easy touchdown for a 22 drop out, he instead had to gather it and withstand the onslaught of Irish chasers behind him.

Easily leading that chase was Conway himself, and there was no way he was going to be wrong footed. He had his body position perfectly calibrated to not only grab his man over the line but also make sure he had to take the ball to ground and while he had great support from Messrs Ringrose and the now-bloodless van der Flier, he probably didn't need them. So once again we had quickly turned the tables, going this time from an attacking lineout in our own 22 to a 5m scrum down the other end.

From our third strong attacking position, we wasted little time turning it into our third try. CJ Stander was so quick taking the ball from the base of the scrum that it was like Murray handed it to him (and with the way put-ins go these days I wouldn't rule it out); this quickness caught the defence napping enough to take it to the line and a phase or two later, it was Tadhg Furlong applying the final surge for another five points.

Our celebrations were curtailed by the sight of Conor Murray lining up the conversion, although we felt better again when the kick went over and Sexton was getting ready for the restart.

The remainder of the first half could be described as our most disappointing spell of the match (apart from Jordan Larmour, who had an outstanding half, jackling a penalty demonstrating another area where he can contribute) as while our D remained solid, we arguably left another 10 points out there when our next attack was ended by some careless sealing off and Murray missed a kickable penalty right before the break. Losing Peter O'Mahony to HIA (to go with Bundee Aki earlier) didn't help either.

Another back row injury that created a talking point was Scottish openside Hamish Watson being stretchered off. Already held in a ruck by one Irish prop in Healy, he was cleared out by the other in Furlong, causing his body to move while his leg was locked in position. There was some consternation online (though not too many from Scots that I could see) about Tadhg's part in this - apparently it was a blatant shoulder charge in from the side? I see an argument for the former but certainly not the latter, though either way I hope Watson recovers soon as it looked really painful.

But I'm sure any Irish fan would have happily accepted the offer of a 16-point halftime lead at kickoff, though as the commentators were at pains to point out, the Scots have some recent form when it comes to overturning deficits. Once they had some open flowing rugby for their potent back three to exploit, they had every chance. The last thing they'd want was for the teeming rain threatened by the weathermen all week to strike at that very moment...

...and so it came to pass. Ireland are another team known for doing well after the break, but the suddenly sodden conditions certainly didn't hurt when it came to protecting our three-score margin. No need for us to take too many chances with the ball, just keep putting them up in the air and see if Scotland can provide us with more opportunities.

Which leads us to our opposition's overall display. Sure, we got lucky with things like a bounce of the ball and the weather, but it can't be denied that this was far from Scotland's best day on a test rugby pitch. The only thing that's up for debate is whether that was natural or did we make them that way. I reckon it was a bit of both but more the latter. Once we showed them that our overall systems were running like clockwork, they didn't have anything in their playbook that could counter.

I certainly wouldn't want to lay all of the blame at the feet of Finn Russell, but he definitely does seem to be one of those hot/cold type players and he was properly smothered by the Irish line speed on the day. That's not to say their tournament is over by a long stretch, though perhaps no further than the quarterfinals.

Back to our side of things; in our pursuit of the bonus point try, we gradually made the high ball work to our advantage. First we got yet another bit of luck when having forced a Scottish knock on in our own 22 before winning a free kick at the scrum, Sexton's kick was slightly blocked on the way to touch giving us the throw. Moments later, our outhalf launched a high ball into their 22 where it was easily marked by Hogg.

The second attempt of this sequence was a box kick by Conor Murray which Maitland did drop though it went behind him so his team mates were able to tidy and clear. Finally it was third time lucky when Murray put up another which was well contested by Conway who swatted it out of the hands of Ryan Wilson; when it finally got back to the Munster winger his quick thinking and pace made the crucial fourth try look easy (see main pic).

The guaranteed five match points meant the remainder of the match could be devoted to squad managemen, and the broken nature of the Scots' morale certainly made that an easier decision. Jack Carty may not have led the side to any more tries in his 20+ minutes, but his territory kicking and general play was still impressive and he did get an easy three points from under the sticks. He also got good support from Luke McGrath when he replaced Murray.

Chris Farrell did well in his extended shift in place of Aki; once of the features of this squad going back to the first warmup match against Italy (when you squint and ignore Twickenham) is that it doesn't seem to matter what pairing we have at 12 or 13.

Tadhg Beirne will be disappointed to have denied himself ten minutes of match time when his was the stray hand on the ball at a breakdown putting him on the naughty step, but even with the extra man Scotland were unable to crack the combination of a very safe Irish defence that once again didn't lose any cohesion after substitutions.

CJ Stander was nominated man of the match and fair play to him, though while I'm sure I'll get accused of keeping the blue goggles on, I'd have given it to James Ryan with Henderson and Rory Best, who had to play a full match and worked as hard in the 80th minute as he did the 1st, a close joint second. The 12/12 lineout tally doesn't tell the full story as not all were "clean", but the ones that really mattered certainly were and provided the platform for us to build an unassailable margin.

But as I often say about Irish teams these days, it's not so much about how individuals stand out; it's more about how they work together and this is the ability that strangled the Scots. Provided we can bring this forward, I honestly don't think I have seen a team in this tournament yet that will fancy themselves too much against us.

Now it's time to regroup and minimize the effects of a six-day turnaround before our meeting with the host nation next Saturday. The injury report seems to be relatively positive, so hopefully Joe will be able to use his squad wisely in order to navigate us through the remainder of this pool and whatever might lie beyond. And we have even managed to shake off that pesky World Number 1 ranking! Not a bad weekend's work all told. JLP


Later this week on Harpin On Rugby...

Tuesday - Guest posts from Keego & Ciarán Duffy
Wednesday - Podcast 
Friday - Ireland v Japan preview (video)
Sunday - a selection of online comments after Ireland v Japan
Monday - Ireland v Japan match writeup

Every morning 8:30am - Front 5 quotes & links

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Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019