At some point during the day after Ireland’s 22-17 win over Wales in the Principality Stadium last month, I suddenly remembered how people called for Schmidt’s head after Leinster lost 3 of their 4 opening Magners League fixtures of the 2010-2011 season before going on to win the Heineken Cup in fine style. It was a mirror image of the mass hysteria that followed Ireland’s horror-show performance in Twickenham, and the general reaction to that chastening defeat reminded me of how quick people can be to turn on a team on the back of one result.
The fact that Ireland and England were at different points in their World Cup preparations seemed to pass the majority of people by, and when you take a proper look at where both teams were in terms of match fitness, the result wasn’t all that unfathomable. England had come off the back of two games against Wales that were of Six Nations-level intensity and up to that point, Ireland had only played one game against Italy, a match in which just two of their normal starting XV (Cian Healy and Garry Ringrose) featured.
That being said, Ireland need to get into the swing of things now that the phoney wars are over because they have a deserved reputation for being slow starters and their first game of this World Cup is against a Scottish side who beat them no more than two years ago. I’ve outlined the threats that Scotland pose before in 2017, 2018 and earlier this year, so there’s no point in retreading old ground. Their game plan has been largely been the same over the course of this World Cup cycle, and they remain dangerous in the following areas: breakdown scavenging, lineout poaching, counter-attacking and broken-field running.
Ireland struggle against teams who move the ball wide quickly; they were outflanked badly by George Ford and Owen Farrell back in August because of their narrowness in defence and misreads on the part of individuals, but they contained the Scottish backline easily enough back in February and I think they can nullify the other Scottish strengths listed above with efficient rucking, more conservative lineout calls than what we saw from them against England and better accuracy in their kicking out of hand.
What is of greater concern to me than the strengths of this Scotland side is the pattern that Ireland’s recent games with them (2017 aside) have followed, whereby Ireland appear to be in the ascendancy, but then start making basic errors, allowing Scotland back into the game. It’s a habit that Ireland have been in since 2010, but this year’s Six Nations clash between the teams was a prime example.
These mistakes can be boiled down to poor decision-making and a lack of concentration, and even though the most frustrating ones came when Ireland looked ready to put Scotland to the sword, there were others earlier in the game that set a trend that would continue throughout:
A lot of the time, intercepts can be put down to good reading and speed off the mark from the player who intercepts the ball, and in spite of both being true of Finn Russell in the instance above, I thought Joey Carbery took the wrong option by throwing the cut-out pass to Rory Best. The Irish captain has many valuable traits, but dynamism isn’t one of them. If the pass had gone to Cian Healy instead of skipping him, the loosehead prop would have been more likely to make yards after contact than Best.
Alternatively, Carbery could have chosen to throw a screen pass behind Healy and Best to Bundee Aki, who was lurking in behind. The inside centre had Keith Earls, Chris Farrell and Rob Kearney outside him, and there was space out wide with the last Scottish defender, Sean Maitland, standing more than 20 metres in from the touch line. It’s possible that the plan was for Best to throw a tip-on pass to Aki, but given how Aki was positioned directly behind him, Best would have had to turn around almost completely to ensure that the pass was on target, by which time he could have been snared in a ball-and-all tackle by a Scottish defender.
If Best had been picked out by Carbery as the carrier in this move, then it’s a flawed attacking shape from Ireland with regards to ruck resourcing. If you look at the image below, you’ll see that in the initial set-up, Healy is in front of Best and Aki is a fair distance behind him:
That means that if Best had gotten the ball and trucked it up, then Healy would have had to retreat so that he didn’t enter the ruck from the side, and there would have been a delay before Aki arrived, both of which would have given the Scottish players ample opportunity to pounce and apply pressure over the ball. All in all, if Russell hadn’t plucked the ball out of the air, Ireland would probably have been looking at a carry for negative yards, slow ruck ball if they were lucky and a turnover if they weren’t.
Carbery was guilty of another bad decision in the second half, and it also resulted in Scotland registering a score. In the 61st minute, Ireland had a scrum just outside their own 22 metre line, and rather than attempting to get his team further down the pitch, the Munster out-half spread the ball wide to Chris Farrell, who got tackled on the gain line and then turned the ball over on the ground, with Scotland subsequently squeezing a penalty out of Ireland that Laidlaw converted into three points:
The idea behind Carbery moving the ball wide here would have been right had he been presented with the right defensive set-up; if Scotland had been waiting for the kick, they would have kept players in the backfield and there would have been space to exploit, which could have led to a huge burst up the middle of the pitch from Farrell with support runners either side of him.
The problem was that Gregor Townsend’s backline were up flat and spaced out evenly, so while in theory, Ireland could have caught them unawares by running the ball from a part of the field that they normally wouldn’t, the reality was that the space had been closed off, and Ireland should have kicked the ball downfield and started again. It was ambitious from Carbery, and as unfair as it is to knock someone for being innovative, Ireland could have done with keeping territorial pressure on their opponents, not to mention pushing on after the try that Earls scored a few minutes beforehand.
That’s very much a “hindsight is 20/20” take on Carbery’s decision and the outcome, but Ireland have to be more careful with their decision-making and execution this weekend than they were back in February. Picking the two examples above might come across as me putting all the blame all on Carbery, but I think Ireland in general were sloppy and lethargic on the day (and it’s also worth noting that the try that Carbery created for Earls ended up being the difference between the sides). You could argue that Sexton wouldn’t have done the same as Carbery in either example, but in general, Ireland were error-strewn for the whole game.
The third example of Ireland letting Scotland off the hook was for me the most significant, and came later on in the match when Ireland were pushing for a bonus point. After marching forward several metres through a well-worked maul, Romain Poite gave the ‘stopped once’ signal for Ireland to use the ball, but they chose to keep it in, with the maul eventually collapsing:
Scotland were awarded a turnover by Poite, and Ireland had to put in a serious defensive shift in the final 10 minutes to stop them turning it into a one-score game.
Had Conor Murray taken the ball out of the maul when Ireland still had momentum (and he was given due warning to do so), Ireland could have pushed for a fourth try instead of fighting for their lives to cling on to a narrow lead. There is a massive difference between those two scenarios with regards to the physical and mental toll they take on players, and having to go to the well would not be a desirable start to this competition for Ireland. Nit-picking the above errors in a game that was played seven months ago may seem pointless, but if Ireland repeatedly give Scotland reason to believe the way they usually do, they could pay a heavy price further down the road for having to grind out a win.
“If There’s Anything You Need Tidied Up, Now Is The Time”
Although it would be preferable if Ireland didn’t hit fifth gear until later in the tournament, a convincing performance is needed here if they are to get back on the path to reasserting themselves as genuine World Cup contenders and show that their performances in the warm-up games were nothing more than exercises in blowing off the cobwebs. All the same, I’m not expecting anything spectacular from Ireland; I suspect they won’t show their hand until they reach a potential quarter-final, but competency and intelligence are a must for them in this match. Ideally, they will play a structured, boring game because it’s exactly what Scotland don’t want. If the game moves from set-piece to set-piece, it will let Ireland turn the contest into an arm wrestle.
I would imagine that there would be plenty of the low punts that thread the ball between players (similar to the ones we saw early on in the warm-up game against England) because getting lineouts deep in Scottish territory would be preferable for Ireland. Kicking to the Scottish back three sounds counter-intuitive, but low, scraping grubbers are not easy to counter-attack from; by the time you gather the ball and turn, the chasers are already up in your face, and in these situations, Stuart Hogg and his wingers will be left with no option but to clear their lines, thus giving Ireland the lineout and the chance to get their maul motoring.
Ireland’s aren’t favourites this Sunday for no reason; on paper, they are a better side, and it was only when I reviewed the Scotland-Ireland game from the Six Nations that I realised that Schmidt’s team went over to Murrayfield with two players who wouldn’t be considered first-choice (Jack Conan and Chris Farrell), Quinn Roux (who isn’t even in the wider squad at present), a past-his-best Seán O’Brien and no Johnny Sexton after the 24th minute. On top of all that, they were noticeably off-colour (as they were for the entire Championship), and yet won by nine points. Without being disrespectful or condescending to Scotland, if the matchday squad Ireland picked for this fixture play reasonably well, it’s hard to see them losing.