“How many years you spend pi**in’ on a toilet seat before someone told you to put it up?”
-Warden Hal Moore – The Green Mile
Ireland’s loss to Scotland on Saturday was, in many ways, a mirror image of their defeat to Wales in the opening round of the 2012 Six Nations, when narrowness in attack and defence, a lack of intensity and inefficient breakdown work gave them a nightmare start to their first game of the Championship. They clawed their way back, but failed to take full advantage of a purple patch, only to lose because of a stupid penalty. The worst part of all was that they knew what Wales were going to try to do to them, and the same can be said for Vern Cotter’s Scotland.
That type performance wasn’t all that surprising from an Ireland team that were stagnating under Declan Kidney, but it’s something they’re supposed to have progressed beyond under Joe Schmidt. The most depressing aspect from an Irish perspective is just how simple Vern Cotter’s game plan to beat Ireland was: pressurise their lineout, slow down their ruck ball, and move the ball wide to the edge of their defence.
The Ghost Of Andy Farrell
Ireland’s woes started with what they did without the ball; they shot themselves in both feet several times throughout the first half with passive tackling and narrow alignment in defence. With the back three they had on the field, Scotland were always going to go wide-wide in attack. The fact that Ireland were so stand-offish and clustered makes you wonder what exactly Andy Farrell was doing with them in training:
There was enough evidence to suggest that Scotland were going to be expansive in their approach from the November Tests alone, and for a coaching ticket who have a reputation for being meticulous in their analysis of the opposition, you’d have to ask what Scotland team they were watching.
Jared Payne’s absence was significant in this regard, as his defensive organisation was a major loss for Ireland. It’s unfair (and inaccurate) to blame Garry Ringrose completely for the drop in defensive standards, as every Irish player was at fault, but his positioning didn’t do any favours for the players inside or out. It’s his first season of international rugby, and he, along with the rest of his team, will have learned hard lessons from the experience. Hopefully, they can put that experience to use by the time their next game comes around.
Comedy Of Errors
Ireland’s over-reliance on the lineout to score tries has been analysed already, and similar to the second New Zealand Test last November, when they couldn’t execute on their own throw, they struggled to get across the line. Running a lineout against Richie Gray can’t be easy, but Ireland have outmaneuvered strong defensive lineouts before. They seemed to be stuck for ideas in this game, and the quality of the throwing and coordination between lifter and jumper were second-rate at different points:
Apart from Ireland’s back row being carrier-heavy, they were also short of lineout options. CJ Stander and Jamie Heaslip are both effective jumpers at club level, and were used successfully as targets in Ireland’s Autumn Series, but they don’t have the same aerial capabilities as Peter O’Mahony. With Iain Henderson in the second row, it was easy for Scotland to tell where Ireland’s throws were going to. The Ulster lock plays for a club side where Franco van der Merwe and Robbie Diack are favoured as lineout targets, so he didn’t draw the same amount of attention as Donnacha Ryan does. Although Ryan looks set to be in contention against Italy, O’Mahony’s hamstring issue seems like it will keep him out of action for longer. As dynamic as Henderson is, Ireland may be better served if Ryan continues his solid partnership with Toner in the engine room.
When Ireland allowed Scotland to build up an 16-point lead, they were always going to have to play catch-up, and this gave Scotland an advantage in the sense that they knew Ireland were going to attempt multi-phase attacks. Playing ball in hand rugby is pointless if you can’t get quick ball, though. The Scottish back row were viewed as inferior to Ireland’s in the carrying stakes, but they showed a lot of street wisdom in terms of getting away with killing Ireland’s ball illegally:
Ireland have every right to complain about Romain Poite’s non-refereeing of the breakdown, but they should have taken matters into their own hands when it became obvious that he was going to be so lenient in this area. A few vicious clear outs early on, and the Scottish forwards would have been more careful about rolling onto the right side.
In spite of all the mistakes that they made, Ireland actually had enough chances to put Scotland to the sword after they went ahead in the 63rd minute. There are a number of reasons behind a team not converting a line break into a try; handling errors, support players not arriving quickly enough, support players choosing the wrong running lines, and the ball carrier going to ground and giving the defence enough time to reset are some examples, and Ireland were guilty of all of these things in Murrayfield:
Scotland’s defence functioned better than expected for the most part, with aggressive line speed and quick reorganisation. Johnny Sexton’s absence has been suggested as a reason behind Ireland’s profligacy, but Paddy Jackson actually varied his options well, even when the Scottish defence blitzed him in the first half. His distribution was good, too, and he wasn’t afraid to have a cut at the seam between the last forward and the first back. He exerted greater influence when Ireland generated front foot ball, and the acceleration that he displayed for his try was impressive. Even though he wasn’t helped by Conor Murray’s normally peerless composure deserting him (that pass down the short side was as bizarre as it was dangerous), it was a fine performance from the out-half.
Jamie Heaslip has also come under fire for an ill-conceived offload late in the game, which is quite hypocritical, considering that these same critics have bemoaned Ireland’s reluctance to offload under Schmidt, but seeing such an experienced player make a mistake like this told you everything you needed to know about how far off Ireland were in terms of concentration. They manged to make yards at will in the final quarter, through with Tadhg Furlong, CJ Stander, Seán O’Brien, and Heaslip getting over the gain line, and even taking into account their mistakes in defence, each of Ireland’s back three were threatening in attack.
A Mountain To Climb
Schmidt was correct when he said that Ireland are not out of the Championship yet, and that there are solutions to their problems, but these are worrying times. The bonus point system makes it easier to win the tournament without winning every match, and while coming away from Rome with 5 points is an achievable goal, it’s hard to envisage Ireland scoring four tries against any one of France, Wales or England, and if they can’t get a win over Scotland, how do they expect to beat the above-mentioned teams to begin with? You wouldn’t bet against this team bouncing back and finishing the tournament strongly, given what they have achieved recently, but this game still feels like a missed opportunity.