Although Ireland’s win over Scotland yesterday was badly needed, it’s not a victory that provides much in the way of satisfaction. Robbie Henshaw’s try came from a fortuitous bounce, and in the end, a missed kick from Finn Russell ended up being the difference between the teams. That shouldn’t have been the case considering that Ireland had a 14-point lead with 25 minutes to go, but a combination of handling errors, sloppy breakdown work and passive defence allowed Scotland to come back into the game.
Ireland did put their stamp on proceedings in the first and third quarters, but they were frantic and error-strewn in other patches of the game, and outside of the Italy walkover, they haven’t yet put an 80 minute performance together in this Championship. Their refusal to settle for a draw yesterday is a sign of real character, but the complications they are experiencing with their attacking fluidity and clarity of purpose don’t look to be going away anytime soon.
Nailing The Fundamentals
Ireland overplaying in the middle third of the pitch was highlighted by Andy Farrell in the aftermath of the defeat to France, and while it wasn’t going to be an issue for them against the Azzurri, they could easily have fallen into the same trap against the sterner Scottish defence yesterday. Territorial dominance seemed to be a focus for them, though, because they repeatedly put boot to ball in order to pin Scotland back in their own half.
A couple of Jamison Gibson-Park’s box-kicks were miscued, but the ones he got right were superb, and the quality of the Irish chase ensured that, good or bad, they were all contestable, with Keith Earls standing out in this regard:
The more centralised kicks always carried the risk of Stuart Hogg counter-attacking, but Ireland had a wall of chasers there to greet him when he did catch the ball in the backfield, nullifying the threat that he poses in these situations:
This fed into another element of the game that Ireland were looking to target, as kicking the ball frequently inevitably leads to more lineouts, and this is the area which really lost Scotland this match. A 25% success rate out of touch is unheard of for a top-level international side, but the pressure that James Ryan, Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne exerted in the air caused George Turner’s throwing to fall apart:
Successful aerial contests and lineout steals gave Ireland lengthy periods of possession, and they continued their forward bludgeoning from the Italy game, bossing the Scottish eight in contact:
Tadhg Furlong’s return from injury has bolstered Ireland hugely in this department, and the introductions of Dave Kilcoyne, Rónan Kelleher and Jack Conan from the bench meant that there was no let-up for Scotland. Given Kelleher’s throwing difficulties and Rob Herring’s near-faultless performance in this facet of the game, it’s unlikely that the Leinsterman will displace his Ulster rival for bigger Tests, but having Furlong back means that there is a better balance in the Irish front row in terms of dynamism and technical proficiency.
Losing Their Way
Ireland letting this game slip away from them in the second half could largely be attributed to a loss of attacking shape and fluency. Many of their attacking sequences looked stilted, with players appearing unsure of their role at certain points, and it didn’t help matters that Gibson-Park repeatedly got caught in two minds:
Had Ali Price not been snared by Baird and Henderson in the last few minutes of the game and gotten his box-kick away instead, it’s hard to imagine Ireland scoring from 40-plus metres out.
James Lowe has taken the majority of the blame for Huw Jones’ try, but I felt that Ireland’s defensive line in general became passive in the second half, which was disappointing when you consider that they were aggressive and composed in the first 40 minutes. Drift defence is a bad idea against this Scottish side because of Stuart Hogg’s propensity coming up from full-back, and they have too much pace and skill in their back line to be giving them weak shoulders to attack:
England demonstrated a willingness to throw the ball around more than they have done in recent times in their enthralling clash with France on Saturday, and if Ireland produce a similar defensive performance against them, they are going to pay a heavy price for it.
A hard-fought win is guaranteed to boost Ireland’s morale, but it’s difficult to know if they should be confident of a competitive match with England in Round 5. They won’t cause anywhere near the same level of disruption to the English lineout as they did to Scotland’s, and playing territory against Eddie Jones’ side would be ill-advised. England are having some uncharacteristic problems in defence, but Ireland’s attack isn’t going to trouble them on the evidence of what we saw in Murrayfield, and there’s no chance that they will get the same return from their close-range carries, either.
The scrum penalties they conceded to the Scottish pack are a concern as well, but the most worrying aspect of Ireland’s display yesterday is that their style of play still hasn’t developed into what their players and coaches claim to be working towards. They did a better job of playing in the right parts of the field, but the battering ram tactics that they used are a far cry from the wide-wide brand of rugby that they are supposedly aiming to play. Maybe a win will give them the self-belief to do so, but the suspicion lingers that they haven’t made any progress in this Championship strategically.