“So, you guys like to tell jokes, huh? Gigglin’ and laughin’ like a bunch of young broads sittin’ in a schoolyard. Well, let me tell a joke. Five guys, sittin’ in a bullpen, in San Quentin. All wondering how they got there. What should we have done, what didn’t we do, who’s fault is it, is it my fault, your fault, his fault, all that bullshit. Then one of them says, hey. Wait a minute. When we were planning this caper, all we did was sit around tellin’ jokes! Get the message? Boys, I don’t mean to holler at ya. When this caper’s over – and I’m sure it’ll be a successful one – we’ll get down to the Hawaiian Islands, hell, I’ll roll and laugh with all of ya. You’ll find me a different character down there. Right now, it’s a matter of business.”
-Joe Cabot, Reservoir Dogs (1992)
John F. Kennedy is credited with saying that “Effort and courage are not enough without purpose and direction”, and while Ireland couldn’t have been faulted for their effort or courage in this year’s Six Nations and warm-up series, they had purpose and direction in spades in their dismantling of Scotland today. Their performance and result hopefully represent a banishment of the demons that have plagued them since the start of 2019, and they now look primed to top this pool and have a decent crack at South Africa in the quarter-finals despite the injury concerns over Johnny Sexton, Peter O’Mahony and Bundee Aki.
The absentmindedness and sloppiness that pockmarked their performances up until the warm-up fixtures against Wales were nowhere to be seen, and they appeared to be fully focused on their opposition. Ireland’s pool is viewed as a handy one by many, but one-slip-up is enough to derail their plans of reaching the last four. There were numerous pleasing aspects of Ireland’s comprehensive victory over Scotland, and as vital as constructive criticism is to further progress, this game has to be viewed as a job well done by the Irish coaches.
In the build-up to Ireland’s Test against New Zealand last November, a journalist asked Steve Hansen where he thought the game would be won and lost, and in typical dour fashion, he replied: “Where all games are won and lost: the front five”. It’s an old adage that still rings true, and with regards to analysing how Ireland beat Scotland, their forwards put in a savagely dominant performance, the type of which we haven’t seen from them in quite some time.
Their forward carrying was aggressive and brilliant technically, and their clearing out at the breakdown was ferocious and organised. The loss of Hamish Watson to a nasty-looking knee injury was a blow for Scotland, but none of their other star forwards were able to match Ireland for intensity. Jonny Gray and John Barclay are renowned for their work-rate in the tight phases, but they were a class below Ireland in this facet of the game.
This, coupled with Ireland’s superiority in the scrum and maul, blew Scotland off the park, and from the end of the first quarter, you knew the Scottish pack were in for a long day at the office. After all of the dread over Ireland’s lineout in the build-up to this fixture, it was heartening to see them finish with a flawless record out of touch. The return of Peter O’Mahony to the starting XV was a boost in this area, but Ireland had no issue in securing their throws after the Munster captain departed due to injury.
We didn’t see any new intricate back line moves from Ireland but then again, we didn’t have to. Their forwards paved the way for their backs just to run straight into the space that was created by the Scottish pack struggling to get up off the canvass after receiving endless haymakers, and having the comfort of keeping their trick plays under wraps is a huge plus for the Irish coaching ticket.
Running Out Of Road
I can’t recall seeing Scotland being shut down completely under Gregor Townsend in the manner that they were in this fixture, and as disappointing as that might be from a neutral perspective in terms of not getting to see an exciting side express themselves, it was an outstanding feat of planning from Joe Schmidt and the rest of the Irish management. Ireland were lambasted for their awful defensive performance against England in August, and although they were guilty of umpteen individual errors that day, they didn’t change their defensive system against Scotland.
Instead, they displayed an improved cohesion that comes with players spending more and more time together in training and on the pitch, and their midfield blitz bore fruit against a Scottish side who were snared in the wider channels on a few occasions. The Scotland attack in general didn’t function as expected, and even though that was probably down to their forwards being fatigued after Ireland steamrolling them in the first 30 minutes, they went from side-to-side with ball in hand without looking in any way threatening for most of their extended periods of possession.
Whenever this happens to Scotland, Finn Russell normally puts the ball in behind the front-line defence with his superb short-range kicking game, but Ireland always had this space covered when he tried to exploit it. With their forwards coming off second-best in the close-quarters exchanges and Ireland giving their back line no room to manoeuvre, Scotland couldn’t go through or around their opponents, and even their lethal counter-attacking looked strangely impotent.
Ireland’s territorial kicking strategy was obvious from the get-go, with Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton hoofing the ball downfield and the Irish line coming up as one to nullify Stuart Hogg and co. Apart from one meaningful break from Sean Maitland in the third quarter, Scotland got no purchase from running the ball back at Ireland, and it had to be incredibly frustrating for Townsend to see one of his team’s main weapons being so ineffective.
Wearing The Rainjacket
Ireland’s biggest failing in the Six Nations was attempting to play multi-phase rugby against Wales in atrocious weather conditions in Cardiff, but on the basis of how they managed the downpour in the second half earlier today, they have learned their lessons from that harrowing defeat. There was some enterprise from them late on when the game was over as a contest, but when faced with the rain in the third quarter, Ireland repeatedly box-kicked through the in-form Murray to keep Scotland pinned back deep in their own half with greasy high-balls to contend with.
It wasn’t pretty at times, but Ireland’s management of the conditions in the second half was encouraging because they are going to be forced to alter their style of play on a game-by-game basis in this tournament, and the ability to adapt is key for any team that have designs on lifting a trophy. It also shows that they learn from past mistakes, and acknowledging that you’re in the wrong and making changes on the back of that is not an easy thing to do.
Self-criticism is an important part of success, though, and without falling into the trap of thinking that one result wins silverware, if Ireland are to go far in this competition, they can’t be complacent. The seismic clash between New Zealand and South Africa yesterday gave us an idea of the levels of performance that will be required to get beyond the quarter-finals, so Ireland won’t be getting too carried away with themselves, but it’s a relief to know that they haven’t lost their champion qualities.