Despite all of the negativity that surrounded this Scotland team because of their off-field issues after beating Italy in Round 4, they were never going to just roll over in Dublin. The scoreline didn’t reflect it, but they made hard work of this fixture for Ireland, and it was telling that it took the hosts until the last play of the game to secure the try bonus point. Andy Farrell’s side didn’t make the most of the monopoly of possession and territory that they enjoyed in this game, but just like the England result, it says a lot about their quality that they can win so well while being profligate.
That being said, Ireland have a significant amount of room for improvement, and had Stuart Hogg not squandered a 2-on-1 early in the second half, Scotland would have been a different beast in the final quarter. Blair Kinghorn had a solid game, but if Finn Russell had started, Scotland would probably have made more of limited possession, and overall, it was their worst performance of the Championship after the France game. When you think of how inaccurate Ireland were against Wales and how fired up Scotland were against England, the outcome of this game could have been different if these teams had faced off in Round 1.
Lessons Not Learned
The most disappointing aspect of this game from an Irish perspective was that they repeated a lot of the same mistakes that they made against England. In the below clip, we see an unforced knock-on from Bundee Aki off a first-phase attack:
The pass from Sexton isn’t overly sympathetic, but Scotland’s line speed wasn’t putting Ireland under much pressure, and the clustered pattern in midfield from them and unders line from Hugo Keenan had narrowed the Scottish defence in completely. There were acres of space outside Kyle Steyn who had been dragged right into midfield, and if Aki had held the pass and released Hansen on his outside, a massive line break was on.
There were numerous handling errors from Ireland, and although that comes with the territory when playing high-risk, offloading rugby, it handed several scrums to Scotland, and as expected, they went after the Irish front row in the same manner that England did:
Zander Fagerson is boring in right across Cian Healy in this example, and although it’s completely illegal, Ireland’s failure to counter it by adjusting their own technique/body positioning or drawing Wayne Barnes’ attention to it when the exact same thing happened to them a week before was worrying.
Provided that Rónan Kelleher returns from injury in time, Ireland probably won’t be troubled in this area by New Zealand as the All Black front row are not renowned for being destructive scrummagers, but it will be a different story when the Springboks come to Dublin in November. Dan Sheehan has been outstanding in Kelleher’s absence in the loose, but this Championship has been a steep learning curve for him in terms of set-piece work and how ruthless opponents can be in going after his height in the scrum.
Ireland’s maul was a source of tries and go-forward ball for them on Saturday, and even though the Scottish pack didn’t disrupt Ireland in that department as much as Maro Itoje did the previous week, they did splinter Ireland a few times. The quality of Ireland’s maul construction practically invited them to do so in the below example, though:
Ireland are way too long and narrow in their setup, and having their forwards launch into the maul from different angles at different times instead of binding tightly together from early on gives Scotland the openings that they need to pull the whole thing apart.
On the other side of the ball, Ireland were guilty of being narrow in defence for the second week running, and although there was a reasonably hard press from them at 13, Scotland managed to get around it:
The missed tackles in the above clip were frustrating, too, and Ireland were caught napping in this regard on more than one occasion. The most glaring example came within the first few minutes, when Ireland switched off completely when defending a maul, and Ali Price didn’t need a second invitation:
Almost keeping a team like Scotland scoreless is a remarkable feat, but when Price broke down the left above, Ireland should have brought him to ground at the first opportunity instead of letting him evade would-be tacklers.
Turning The Screw
Ireland’s performance on Saturday wasn’t bad as such; imperfect would probably be a more accurate description of it, but there were several positives, too. Their attacking play was highly productive at certain points in the game, with the maul break being a strong starting point for them. We have seen Josh van der Flier being used primarily as the tail-gunner, but Sheehan’s pace was a major asset for Ireland in carrying out this role:
All four of Ireland’s tries came from battering ram carries at close-range, but their phase play attack further out really worked the Scottish defence. Overloading the short side is a popular way of nullifying the blitz, but in this game, Ireland chose to do it for a couple of phases in a row, and it yielded a big return for them in the below example up until Caelan Doris got dragged into touch:
They also continued in the same vein of using different players at first- and second-receiver as they have done since this time last year. Mack Hansen, Sexton, Aki and van der Flier all distribute in the sequence below, and this combined with repeated change of direction caused the Scottish no end of consternation, creating a lot of space at the edge for Ireland:
Ireland’s continuity in attack was excellent, too. Scotland had difficulty reorganising quickly, and when this happened, Ireland recognised it and flooded the gaps with support runners, with Caelan Doris and Jack Conan being prominent carriers out wide, and their skill sets were put to use:
It’s tough for a defence to recover from one offload, let alone a few in a row, and the different pictures that Ireland presented to Scotland in attack meant that they couldn’t be hyper-aggressive in defence, which made passing out of contact that bit easier.
Putting The Boot In
Ireland’s regular use of kicks added a lot of variety to their attack, and it took advantage of a Scottish defence that kept their wingers up flat in an attempt to nullify Ireland’s multi-phase play. Stuart Hogg didn’t have his finest hour on Saturday, and notwithstanding the fact that playing in a 14+1 defence places a lot of pressure on the full-back, the Scottish captain’s coverage of the backfield was substandard for a player of his calibre:
Sexton’s kick above was pinpoint-accurate, but the depth Hogg was standing at before the Irish out-half put boot to ball signalled his intent early, yet Hogg didn’t move closer to the touch-line to account for this.
Ireland also caught Scotland off-guard by kicking off attacking set-pieces deep in the Scottish half. Off a scrum like the below, you would expect Ireland to attack a massive openside with a screen play in midfield or direct carry from Aki, but Ireland cleverly go after the short side with a deft grubber kick from Hansen, which forces a rushed clearance kick from Price inside his own in-goal area:
This wasn’t the only time Ireland benefitted from kicking down the wing, and they weren’t afraid to do so from deep in their own half. After winning an early turnover, Ireland showed great ambition by spreading the ball wide, allowing James Lowe to use his siege-gun left boot to exploit the space in behind a Scottish back three that had pushed up to close down the space at the edge:
Not The Finished Article
It’s worth remembering that when Ireland reached their peak under Joe Schmidt in 2018, the only way was down. With that in mind, it probably bodes well for Andy Farrell and co. that their team still has some ground to cover ahead of Paris next September. Their game plan has been nailed down in terms of structure and players knowing their positions/roles, but they need to improve their handling in order for it to be good enough to get them to the latter stages of a World Cup.
Injury-enforced changes throughout the tournament played a big part in this lack of synchronisation, but if Ireland make as many mistakes in New Zealand this summer as they did in this Championship, they will have no chance of being competitive. The losses of key players may turn out to be a blessing in disguise, though, as they have shown Ireland where they need to strengthen the depth of their squad.
It remains to be seen what Farrell’s selection policy is in July; he may go full bore for each of the Tests, but Ireland badly need to explore other options in the front row, openside flanker, half-back and the right wing. Cian Healy and Dave Kilcoyne struggled in the scrum in this tournament, and will be 35 and 34 respectively by next September, whereas Josh Wycherley looks to be a superstar in the making, while Eric O’Sullivan impressed on his 2020 Autumn Nations Cup cameo against Scotland.
Josh van der Flier has become a key player for Ireland, but with the recurring injury issues that Dan Leavy and Will Connors are having, now is the time to get Conor Oliver up to speed with Ireland’s systems, as well as rewarding Nick Timoney with further game time as both are in superb form and closer to the type of explosive ball-carrier than van der Flier is. Jamison Gibson-Park and Conor Murray were both consistent throughout this Championship, but Craig Casey is worth investing more minutes in as he is the kind of high-tempo 9 that Ireland could do with off the bench, and Nathan Doak has buckets of potential.
Keith Earls isn’t quite a Test starter at this point of his career, and as threatening a player as he is, Mack Hansen is a natural left winger, so reinforcements at 14 are needed. Thankfully, Robert Baloucoune has been tearing it up in the URC, but he only has 2 caps to his name, and most importantly, Ireland need to become less reliant on Johnny Sexton. If they can bolster their options in these positions while continuing to play the brand of rugby that has thrilled supporters and bore fruit for them, they should be in a good place by the time RWC 2023 kicks off.