When Ireland played Scotland in the penultimate round of the Six Nations in 2009, they looked nowhere near ready to go out and beat Wales the following week. They were hesitant and error-prone for the majority of that Test, only taking control when Jamie Heaslip scored off the back of a Peter Stringer break at the tail of the lineout. The same kind of nervousness appeared to have afflicted them for much of the first half on Saturday when they let Scotland dictate the flow of the game after an opening four minutes that went exactly as the home side would have planned.
After pressurising Scotland into a kicking duel through quality line speed, an aerial challenge from the outstanding Rob Kearney forced a knock-on from Finn Russell, giving Ireland a scrum in an ideal attacking position. Ireland failed to take capitalise on it because of a handling error from Johnny Sexton, and mistakes like that became too frequent for most of the first half:
These slip-ups induced that dreaded ‘one of those days’ feeling, and they let Scotland keep the game open, something they had to avoid at all costs. The Scottish back three were alert whenever Ireland kicked to touch, and quick throw-ins prevented any sort of structure being put on the game in the first half. As a result, the ball was kept in play for long periods, unsettling Ireland’s defence:
Conor Murray box-kicked infield whenever Scotland kicked long into the Irish half from restarts, which was good and bad at the same time. It gave Ireland a shot at competing in the air and possibly secure field position, but it also handed Scotland possession in the Irish half when Ireland didn’t win the aerial contest. Ireland weren’t helped by their early lineouts being picked off or the influence the Scottish back row exerted on the ground, and overall, they couldn’t impose their game plan on Scotland to the extent that they would have liked in the first 40 minutes, despite stringing multiple phases together.
Jacob Stockdale’s try at the end of the first half handed Ireland the initiative, but if Scotland hadn’t given away the needless penalty that led to it, you wonder what path the game would have taken. Hopefully, Ireland have gotten the nerves out of their system, because if they are tentative against an angry English side this weekend, they won’t get the same opportunity to feel their way into the match.
The general consensus going into this game was that Ireland were superior up front, and that if they had enough close-in forward carries, scrums and mauls, then they could pummel Scotland into submission. It didn’t prove to be the forward-oriented affair that Ireland would have wanted, but they did have enough set-pieces and close-quarters skirmishes to eke out an advantage in these areas.
Ireland’s ball carrying was effective throughout, with punishing runs from the likes of Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong taking the legs out from under the Scottish pack:
The fatigue that resulted from putting in big tackles started to show in the second half, when the Scottish forwards weren’t as competitive on the floor as they were before half-time. The message from Gregor Townsend was probably to continue slowing Ireland’s ball down, but it’s hard to make it to the breakdown and get into a low body position before the ruck forms when you’re running on fumes.
Ireland’s scrum wasn’t as dominant as expected but it did give them a stable platform for the series of phases that culminated in Stockdale’s second try, and it got them out of jail when they were under pressure in their own half:
Even though Ireland were superior in the maul, they didn’t have as many in the first half as they would have hoped for. They had one standout drive in the 33rd minute, but nothing that yielded anything in the way of penalties. Scotland’s resistance in this phase of play was broken when Ireland created enough momentum to send Conor Murray and Sean Cronin over the try line, though, and there was a sense of the dam bursting when Ireland marched them backwards for several metres for each of those scores:
Ireland’s defence took a lot of criticism after the Italy and Wales games, specifically for the manner in which it afforded the opposition too much space in the 15-metre channel. It was a worry going into this fixture, because Scotland like to attack teams in that part of the field, but Ireland showed a willingness to learn from past mistakes and tweaked their system to suit their opponents on the day.
Rather than blitzing aggressively all the time, their line speed was slower, and they drifted across when they knew Scotland were moving the ball as far as midfield. A significant factor in their ability to do so was Garry Ringrose playing at 13. His capacity for reacting to what’s happening in front of him, changing direction and sliding across quickly let Ireland push Scotland out towards the touch line when they moved the ball wide:
It’s not that Robbie Henshaw or Chris Farrell are one-paced or slow to turn; we’ve seen plenty of pace and footwork from both players at club and international level, but having a smaller, more nimble outside centre made it easier for Ireland to be flexible in defence. While Ringrose was skillful and fleet-footed in attack, his work off the ball bodes well for Ireland’s visit to Twickenham, where England will have buckets of speed in the back line.
Ireland weren’t perfect off the ball; Scotland had three clear try-scoring chances and if all of their passes had gone to hand, events might have unfolded differently, but it was encouraging to see Ireland heeding the lessons of their previous Tests in this Championship. There will be moments when things don’t go to plan in Twickenham on Saturday, and they will have to be able to think on their feet again if they are to secure a Grand Slam.
The Holy Grail
In a way, winning the Championship before they play England has taken a weight off Ireland’s shoulders. Going to Twickenham with a trophy in the balance would be a tough ask in and of itself, never mind against a team who Ireland haven’t beaten on their home ground under Joe Schmidt yet. There’s a degree of comfort to be taken from knowing that they will have silverware by the end of the game regardless of the final score, but anything less than a win will be viewed as a failure by a group of players and coaches who twice already have fallen just short of a clean sweep in this competition.
Ireland are going to face the mother of all backlashes from a wounded England, and notwithstanding the fact that they have a number of serious issues (an unbalanced back row, a high injury count, a midfield that’s not functioning properly), Eddie Jones’ side will make life as difficult as possible for Ireland. A Grand Slam and a win in Twickenham are two things that Schmidt has to cross off his to-do list, and neither of them come along too often.
The meticulous New Zealander has achieved some fantastic things during his time in Ireland, but this is among the biggest challenges he will ever face. Although back-to-back Six Nations Titles, a first win over the All Blacks and a historic victory on South African soil can never be taken away from him, winning a Grand Slam in England would be one of the greatest things he could ever hope to accomplish. Ireland’s players have the talent and the hunger to do it, but the guidance of their gifted coach may very well be the point of difference.