|photo by @LaszloGeczo INPHO|
“...I still feel we’ll do enough to prevail by 3-5pts. Unfortunately I also predict that won’t be enough for some who will be likely to say ‘well we’d better not play like that against England’ or something similar.”
You’d think I was sharing that quote from my match preview here because it could well be my most accurate match prediction ever, wouldn’t you. Well, I suppose in a way I am, but it also comes with a bit of shame, because as you can see from my tweet at the full time whistle, I was actually saying that about next Saturday’s match against England myself.
This is why I do a seperate post every week sharing the reactions people offer as the full time whistle blows. As fans we are generally so caught up with emotion throughout the 80 minutes that our opinions tend to be as raw as they can be. Only after at least one more review of the match can a writeup like this be properly attempted IMO.
So while I still stand by my statement about our next opponents, I want to start by looking back over six specific positive moments from Ireland during the match in the hope it demonstrates that I don’t believe it all to be doom and gloom.
1) Confident start
Right from the kickoff Ireland were as ready as a rugby team could possibly be to settle into their game plan. As Finn Russell returned Sexton’s opening kick to touch outside the 22, Hugo Keenan was already celebrating a job well done.
And like clockwork we clicked into gear from the resulting lineout, with passes across the back line, some punishing runs from the forwards with plenty of clearing out support, all with our starting halfbacks pulling the strings to get us right near the Scottish line until a penalty was shipped. It was right under the posts so being the away team it made sense to pop over the easy three but we weren’t done there.
2) Choke tackle
On Scotland’s first attempt at running the ball their prop Rory Sutherland went straight into the welcome arms of first Tadhg Beirne, then Johnny Sexton and finally Iain Henderson and once Romain Poite called it a maul it was always going to be Ireland’s put in. Refs may not be happy about defenders aiming for this but when the technique is that perfect they have no choice but to award the turnover. Near perfect starts for Ireland both with and without the ball.
3) Lineout dominance
As if our early success wasn’t enough, on Scotland’s first dart James Ryan soared to swat it down from the grasp of Johnny Gray as though the call was always meant for the large Leinster lock. This was to be first of a disastrous day at the office in this set piece for Townsend’s men and surely the bulk of the credit has to go Paul O’Connell for giving us all the tools we needed to make the most of any doubts already in the mind of their pack.
4) Kick chase, Super Robbie
From that opening lineout steal Sexton opted to pile on the pressure and his high bomb into their 22 was reminiscent of those opening stages at Twickenham in 2018. There was one crucial difference between those two matches however, in that the Grand Slam decider was missing the considerable talents of one Mr Robert Henshaw, and him getting on the end of this kick was the first in a long line of examples where he was showing up in all the right places at all the right times doing all the right things.
In fact we quickly got a second example because after he swatted it back and Ryan dived on it to secure control, Sexton had the stones to kick for the far corner even though there was no penalty advantage and after Earls did enough to prevent both Hogg & Harris from getting to it, there was Henshaw able to get the dot down.
All four of those positives I have outlined so far happened in just the first seven minutes.
5) More confidence to go for kick to corner
Let’s fast forward to the second half for now - of course I will fill in the gaps but remember, I’m starting with the positives. Our lead was just four at this stage and when Rob Herring jackled a penalty (might have gotten a tad lucky with the call) and Sexton had a decision to make. Take the three or pop it to the corner? After a quick consultation with Ryan the decision was made to go for jugular.
Obviously the only way to back this up was with a try but I have to say in this particular passage of play I haven’t seen us playing with such confidence for a while. Herring threw quite high but it was still taken by Beirne, and although the set play didn’t pan out, we got another chance as Cummings was pinged for jumping across.
For the second throw the Ulster hooker put even more air under his dart, yet it still was easily grabbed this time by Ryan, and from the maul some really strong carries first by Will Connors and then from Tadhg Beirne, the referee decided after burrowing into the ruck himself that the Munster lock had gotten the ball down. Confidence matched by the maximum seven points and our lead stretched to eleven.
6) Sexton’s nerves of steel
A bit more fast forwarding here of course, but with a comfortable lead having been wiped out and only six minutes left on the clock we needed to find those levels of confidence once more otherwise we could have easily ended up on the losing side.
First we had Sexton planting a restart right on the money into the Scottish 22 where the chasers put Ali Price under enough pressure to put his exit kick straight at the lunging Ryan Baird and although the 9 retrieved the block first, Baird stopped him getting anywhere and finally Iain Henderson pinned him down to win the penalty.
Now it was time for another big decision. This was out near the touchline but with the clock ticking down we really needed the three points and Sexton didn’t seem to hesitate at all to do the captain’s role. Now I know he has come good in similar big match situations before but my word this was some pressure kick and as a fan watching it, to first see it going left before somehow fading between the sticks was an awesome sight to see.
So as you can see there were plenty of positives for me to harp on and if we bring all of that forward it will make life very difficult for the English…….
…….but only if we manage to avoid what I’m about to set out in my next list. Because unfortunately each of those moments of clarity were eventually matched with moments of confusion and this is how I came out of the match in a negative frame of mind.
First, let’s look at 1). Any attacking plan looks right when it works and wrong when it doesn’t no matter who the coaches might be. And more often than not in this match, especially in the first half, it didn’t work because we made basic errors, though of course the Scottish defence deserves some credit too.
Sexton and Keenan getting their wires crossed. Ringrose dropping a simple offload from Henshaw. James Ryan knocking on in the tackle. All of that took place in the first 15 minutes and prevented us from building on those early 8 points, and Furlong getting pinged for hands in the ruck allowing Russell to pull 3 back didn’t help much either.
It’s in looking at the negatives for 2) where I will bring up the defensive frailties of James Lowe. Choke tackles are awesome when they work, but unfortunately there are many problems associated with committing to having your tacklers remain upright through the point of contact.
In actual fact, Lowe’s failure to focus on getting Huw Jones to the ground and thus allowing him through for Scotland’s second try was actually one of the better consequences of not going low(e). At worst you have yourself a nasty clash of heads. I’m really not sure the reward is anywhere close to being worth the risk. And of course, in Lowe's own case this wasn't the first time he has been found wanting defensively and it is routinely punished at this level.
For 3), the negative was that despite my claim in the preview that the lineout could decide the match, our utter dominance at this set piece was nearly not enough. And when I speak of confidence on our side, I have to also hand it to the Scots for opting to go for a lineout in the sequence leading to their late try that brought them level. Maybe they did go for a “tap n go” after the subsequent penalties but it was still brave to choose a dart the first time and they did reap the reward in the end.
Number 4) had to do with the kicking game, and it was this more than the lineout that proved to be decisive. Firstly, why was everyone so keen to box kick? Because both teams saw that as a better way of advancing the ball because both sets of back rows were hungry for the steal. And once you’ve decided to opt for the kicks, they absolutely MUST be accurate. And to be fair to Jamison Gibson Park, many of his were on the money as were Sexton’s but it also must be said that there were too many that went too long and with a back three like Scotland’s that was always going to give them chances.
Now to number 5). Just five minutes after we showed such great confidence in going for the corner, we capped off yet another fine series of phases by winning yet another penalty. A quick calculation in my head told me that another try here would push our lead past the magic 15 point mark and with our morale seemingly so high, it made perfect sense to crank up the pressure even more on our hosts. Instead we took the three which may have only left the door slightly ajar, yet as we all know it turned out to be enough for them to strike back.
Finally there was what we did after 6), ie taking the lead for the final time. I agree with the consensus view among Irish fans which says we can make neither head nor tail of our substitution policy. Well, when I say that I mean I can’t see beyond the idea that we go into a match saying players a, b and c are going to be introduced at minutes x, y and z no matter what is happening on the pitch.
The final few minutes of the contest, where the Scots only needed three points to get something on the match and Stuart Hogg able to nail a placekick from almost anywhere, were always going to feature high kicks back and forth. Like I said, JGP did manage some beauties but who better to introduce fresh off the bench than one of the best in the world at the art in Conor Murray?
In the end it was a Scottish knock on that ended the contest, but in many ways that is my point. Having done so much right over the 80 minutes, we not only managed to almost match them with things gone wrong but we also relied heavily on mistakes by our opponents. And that’s where my pessimism comes with regard to next week. This might get you the result against the Italians and the Scots (all due respect etc etc), but not so much when your goal is to be in contention for a high Six Nations finish or dare I say it a RWC semifinal berth.
Before I go on, I must of course mention one extra positive from the match which kind of falls into its own category - that sidestep by Tadhg “Twinkletoes” Furlong. I remember in 2018 when we welcomed the fourth star-clinching Leinster team back from Bilbao at Energia Park in Donnybrook, he was persuaded to show off his dancing skills as he performed the “Floss” for us all. Nice to see he can put his moves to good effect on the pitch as well!!!
To summarise I’ll look at the one try from the match I am yet to describe as I feel it best sums up where we are. Ironically it all started from a lineout of our own which went a bit wonky, but a few phases later CJ Stander brilliantly ferreted the ball free from the breakdown.
Garry Ringrose definitely was not at his best on the day. When the ball came to him, his decision to kick the ball ahead was absolutely right only for his execution to be absolutely wrong. What ensued was what can only be described as “chaos”, and for many years I believe dealing with it has been our Achilles heel.
Does the ball come off Hogg’s chest for a knockon in the build up? You know what, it doesn’t really matter. The fact remains, he and Russell reacted, we didn’t, and when that’s the case you’re really rolling the dice. And that is the big difference between the good and bad things I describe above.
For the positive list, in each case we are the ones in control. And let’s be clear, having the ability to execute when in control is always going to get you far in test rugby. But just one look at a rugby ball when it bounces will tell you that you still must always, always, always be ready to play when the unexpected happens, and if we’re not careful at the Aviva next Saturday, that could well be the difference between 3 wins/finish in top 3 and 2 wins/finish in bottom 3.
Of course I’m delighted we won on the day. And of course I’m delighted with the individual performances from many Irish players on the day, with Henshaw clearly player of the match although the actual winner Beirne did well as did Henderson, Sexton, Earls, Keenan...but when it comes to our prospects as a team, we just have to better when it comes to playing together over a full 80 minutes.
Again I will point to the fact that Andy Farrell & his coaching staff have faced more adversity than most have done since taking over, but even with all that craziness that has been happening in “the real world” over the past year, that narrative can’t hold forever, especially with the likelihood that the squad won’t all be together again before the autumn.
Hopefully they’ll be able to go out next weekend and make me eat all my doubtful words. I’ll be sure to savour them if they do. JLP