Monday, February 03, 2020

IRELAND-19 SCOTLAND-12



"This is where Irish rugby fans just want to see something that little bit different."

I couldn't have agreed with ITV commentator Gordon D'Arcy more.  It was Ireland's opening set of attacking phases on the Scottish line, coming shortly after a sequence where we went through 13 at midfield before winning a penalty that gave us a 5m lineout - a chain of events of which we had become very familiar when Joe Schmidt held the reins.

And after James Ryan confidently hauled down the ball at the set piece before a maul got us within a few metres, we began trundling our way through some carries, offering a certain look of familiarity about us that could have been disconcerting had it gone on much longer.

But then it came.  Conor Murray stood off a breakdown, making it look as though another carry was on the cards.  Cian Healy ran around into what looked like a blocking position but James Ryan knew to chuck it to his fellow Leinster forward, who in turn knew to ship it back to Murray.  You could call it a wraparound without the wrap, so maybe an "around"?

Anyway, the Munster 9 didn't hesitate to fling a long miss pass through a blocking line run by Jordan Larmour and into the grateful arms of his skipper Johnny Sexton, who had Ringrose and Stockdale on the outside but didn't need them as his team-mates' perfect execution throughout had created plenty of space for him to coast over for our first try under his captaincy, under Farrell, of the Championship and also the decade.  Not bad considering the Aviva Stadium clock was yet to tick into double digits.

However it's not like we completely dominated that opening spell; in fact, up to this point things weren't going well at all.  Perhaps intentionally as a nod to Murray's much debated selection ahead of John Cooney, Scotland sent the kickoff directly to the scrum half, who proceeded to boot it clear of the 22 immediately, finding the game's other new test captain Stuart Hogg rather than the safety of touch.

The visitors then embarked on a series of 10 phases which made clever use of little offloads here and wide running there to get them into our 22 before Caelan Doris provided himself the perfect settling moment into test rugby by jackling a penalty.  However from the ensuing lineout, Murray's box kick wasn't quite contestable enough and the Scots were back on the attack again.

11 similar phases later it was they who won the penalty as Iain Henderson was adjudged to have not rolled away in time from a tackle.  Being the away team and 14-point underdogs (I ambitiously mooted 21 in my preview) it made sense to take the easy three which Adam Hastings duly did.  And that wasn't the only casualty of that sequence as Doris's day was already over courtesy of a nasty clash of heads in the tackle.

Luckily he seemed much better leaving the pitch than he had as the medics were taking their (absolutely appropriate) precautions, and from the team's standpoint we had a perfect replacement as Peter O'Mahony slotted in at 6 while Stander comfortably shifted to 8.

But having recovered from the early setbacks to click into gear enough to secure the Sexton try, from the resulting restart things began to regress for us and finding those levels of cohesion were to prove difficult for the remainder of the match.  Sometimes we were thwarted by the Scots' determination, other times that determination led to penalties which could have gotten further sanction from referee Mathieu Reynal, but there were also several times when we contributed to our own problems.

It started when we tried to confidently run the ball out of the 22 on restart before Garry Ringrose was forced into a knockon in the tackle, giving Scotland a scrum at which Cian Healy was penalised for hinging. This allowed Hastings to narrow the margin to just the one.

The next Murray box kick was of a decent length and height but still Scotland's own debutant number 8 Nick Haining took an impressive catch.  The next one was received in similar fashion by Sean Maitland, prompting a series of demands from Irish rugby twitterati to tuck the predictable high ball into the back pocket for now.  Those demands were not met, although the success rate did improve.

And it's not like there wasn't open space to be found in that period, it's just when we had it, we were making questionable decisions.  With more pre-ordained moves from the breakdown, both our centres Aki and Ringrose were finding openings, yet things like Peter O'Mahony doing some unnecessary blocking and James Ryan failing to notice three speedsters outside him with decent overlap potential would throw the Scots a lifeline.

For their part they were still occasionally finding their way to our line, yet they never utilised the momentum long enough to stop our defenders from pinching it back, with O'Mahony the culprit on one very dangerous looking occasion, and Stander pouncing on a loose ball on another - this led to arguably (in every sense of the word) the game's most controversial incident.

It came about when Hastings fly hacked a loose ball into our 22.  The ball had been loose because Larmour tried a little (perhaps ill advised) chip over the top only to be tap tackled by Hogg - this could have been late.  The other side of the fly hack saw Sexton gather before being hit by Hamish Watson and Reynal awarded Scotland the scrum despite our skipper trying to point out he had been hit in the jaw.

This resulted in lots of chatter online from outside the four provinces (possibly some within too) regarding Sexton's penchant for "play-acting".  I'd rather harp on that more outside this writeup, so along with a debate in the comments on the Facebook page I'll be covering it with Keego in this week's podcast.  Meanwhile back in the match in question, Scotland's attempts to make the most from the attacking scrum were ended by Stander.

Hastings then had a chance to restore Scotland's lead yet he pushed the kick wide - Sexton took the bold option of a short drop out and it fell perfectly for Stockdale who grabbed it and charged into opposition territory.  This was where Ryan missed the outlet pass I mentioned but we still kept possession for long enough to win a penalty as Ali Price took out Murray at the breakdown (sidenote - that wasn't the last time I felt Reynal could have gone straight to his pocket).

Although it was definitely in three point territory, I was surprised to see Sexton elect to take them.  The Scots had already made several trips deep into our 22 to no avail while we had scored from our only chance.  That together with the availability of a try bonus point made going for the jugular a reasonable option, but to be fair I wasn't entirely disappointed as our lead was restored to four.

Three minutes later we actually reaped some reward from a Murray box kick as our platoon of chasers did some excellent work including a tackle from Rob Herring and we won another penalty in the same position.  As fans we are free to point to the (presumably Scottish) onlookers making noise as a reason for Johnny putting it wide but I'm pretty sure he'll be the first to admit that shouldn't be a factor.

By the end of the half we were actually happy with the slender margin; another impressive Aki/Ringrose combination put us on the front foot but a not so impressive Murray/Sexton one allowed Sam Johnson to intercept the long pass and the centre got it all the way to our 22.  We scrambled well before Stander jackled us out of trouble again but my relief was outweighed by my frustration from having been in that position in the first place.

The second half proceeded in similar fashion to the first as we lost another starter, only this time Ringrose never returned to the field owing to a hand injury.  Still, things began well playing-wise, as we won (or maybe "earned" is a better word, since Murray flung a fake pass at a poorly positioned Watson) another penalty at midfield before some phases in their 22 meant they were penalised for a 9th time.

Once more Sexton had a decision to make, and once more he defied my wishes by opting for the kickable points.  And when the James Ryan and his lifters misjudged the restart forcing Aki to knock on, Scotland were given another chance to pull us back which they eventually did by three more points, albeit after a six minute spell which included a gilt-edged chance for more.

We had a few opportunities to clear but kept handing possession back to Gregor Townsend's men and eventually after a series of phases on our line, with a penalty advantage coming, they finally worked an overlap allowing Hogg to touch down.  But wait - DID he touch down?  His immediate celebrations said "aye", yet his grimace following Reynal's signal to check upstairs said "nay", as did the subsequent replay.  It's tough not to feel for anyone making such a blunder let alone one leading his nation for the first time.

As this was going on we got more bad news on the injury front as Kilcoyne, barely on the pitch for Cian Healy, also had to go off for an HIA and he was never to return.  Church returned for a spell, but luckily we had our "switch-hitter"  available in Andrew Porter although it meant Furlong had to go a full 80 - I wonder will that affect his playing time next weekend.

Two further Scottish penalties allowed Sexton to put us back in the lead by 7, and at this point we were wondering if Reynal actually brought his cards with him at all.  It's not like we were angels on the day ourselves, but our guests had clearly come with an intention to push the boundaries of legality at the breakdown, a decision that seemed to present more reward than risk.

Murray's second last contribution to the match was a superb clearance kick that has always been one of his many specialties and it was great to see it back.  Unfortunately his final one wasn't so hot.  Robbie Henshaw, on for Ringrose, had chipped one into their 22 and it sat up nicely forcing Hastings to step into touch.  From the lineout however, Josh van der Flier, who had a great outing overall, had the ball ripped from him by his opposite number Watson and rather than force a clearance giving us another lineout, Murray shipped a needless penalty.

And so on came John Cooney, who had been tearing it up for Ulster all season, and not just against the weaker Pro14 sides either, also in Europe.  There was a buzz of expectation around the place as he entered the fray, but I wasn't sure if we'd see the same sniping runs he's known for when wearing white.

Right after he came on Reynal called Hogg over for a chat after they conceded yet another penalty.  Finally a warning, I thought.  I was wrong.  He actually cautioned him for questioning the call!  No card, no 10m sanction for complaining, just a quiet word?

Things got worse for us when we got ourselves choke tackled at the ensuing lineout, and this was on us since we should probably have gone for "one off the top" after the previous one went wrong.  Then following some back and forth at midfield, Henderson was pinged for not rolling away and once again the margin was at just four.

Cooney continued with our tendency to kick, but to be fair his efforts were both well directed and well supported.  During one sequence I noticed what I thought was a perfect opportunity for him to take the ball and go on a wander around the fringes as prop Zander Fagerson was left (barely) guarding the pillar at one stage.   But it wasn't on Cooney's mind at all and instead he fired back a pass to his captain who proceeded to launch another high ball towards their 22.

On first look it seemed as though Hasting's easily-taken mark meant the aerial route was a bad option, but a quick look at the replay showed it was actually perfectly placed for Conway to contest only for Johnson failing to make his block appear accidental.  Again, this was an offence that could have been yellow all on it's own.  But again, we had to be happy with the penalty, and since it was so late in the game and the BP was out of reach, the three points were welcome.

The place kick was Sexton's final offering of the day so it was up to those left standing to bring home the one-score margin.  Cooney provided another long accurate clearance off the restart but shortly after the lineout, Hastings was finally able to find a way through our defence thanks to a good line by sub hooker McInally and able support by Hamish Watson.

That break got them to our 22 and a few carries later they were inches away.  One by one they were picking from the base and going at the line.  One by one they were being felled by multiple boys in green.  Thumbs down to the broadcasters for not providing a phase counter graphic, but I made it 26 by the time CJ Stander was able to latch on to the ball.

It seemed like an eternity before Reynal went to his whistle, and that's probably because over 5 seconds IS an eternity in this situation.  Let's just say I was able to scream "HE'S ON IT, REF!" at least three times, scaring the holy bejaysus out of my poor 4-year old in the process (no wonder my kids are all a bit "meh" about the egg-chasing!).  Anyway, despite three different Scots trying to clear him out, he wasn't for budging and while van der Flier and Watson deserve honourable mentions, the man of the match award was definitely sealed for CJ in that moment.

Of course we couldn't simply see the lead home from there, could we.  Rónan Kelleher was another getting his first cap on the day and while he has shown amazing maturity for Leinster this season, it was perhaps a touch of nerves that saw him hesitate with his dart leading to Toner being pinged for stepping into the gap, leading to more Scottish phases in our 22.  But once more our defensive wall was not to be breached, with van der Flier forcing a knock on and now that the clock was in the red, we put the win to bed for good.

When the full time whistle blew, I wasn't happy.  That's unusual for me - even when we play badly I tend to prepare myself for the online onslaught by the type of fans who seem to think every little mistake is a damnable offence for everyone involved in the team and for me, the starting point for our reactions should be..."well, did we win?" and we most certainly did tick that box.

And there's no denying there were caveats to the lower-than-predicted winning margin, some of which I have pointed out already, but to which can be added the simplest fact that it's a team playing under a new coach and captain.  Even though both were involved under Joe, this is still a whole new set up for everyone and with no warmup matches, we can't just expect everything to click off the bat.

I suppose my unhappiness came from a feeling that we have a reasonable chance of winning this Championship.  Most teams have had changes in leadership so that could make it the most wide open competition in years.  That opinion has since been compounded by France demonstrating on Sunday that their good version seems to be the one showing up this year.  So if we're to be in with a shout, we need to be firing on all cylinders as soon as possible.

Well there can be no doubting a few cylinders went un-fired on Saturday.  The style of play wasn't as varied as it might have been, we certainly don't want to rely on our skipper getting all of our points in every match, and our scrum looked decidely wobbly.  Changes like announcing the team on Tuesday, training in different locations and sporting a jacket instead of a tracksuit on match day are well and good, but they are simply cosmetic.  It's the performances on which judgments are made.

There was never going to be a negative verdict on the new regime after just one match.  But test rugby doesn't afford you a whole lot of time to resolve issues after your first try at it, and we have just seven days before a much more difficult opposition arrives at the Aviva.  Hopefully it will only take Andy, Johnny & co a few tweaks here and there to sort them out.  JLP

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