“As I came in here, I heard those words, “cradle of leadership”, Well, when the bough breaks, the cradle will fall. And it has fallen here; it has fallen. Makers of men; creators of leaders; be careful what kind of leaders you’re producin’ here. I don’t know if Charlie’s silence here today is right or wrong. I’m not a judge or jury. But I can tell you this: he won’t sell anybody out to buy his future!! And that, my friends, is called integrity! That’s called courage! Now that’s the stuff leaders should be made of. Now I have come to the crossroads in my life. I always knew what the right path was. Without exception, I knew. But I never took it. You know why? It was too damn hard. Now here’s Charlie. He’s come to the crossroads. He has chosen a path. It’s the right path. It’s a path made of principle — that leads to character. Let him continue on his journey.”
-Lt. Col. Frank Slade, Scent Of A Woman (1992).
Regardless of the outcome of Ireland’s Grand Slam decider with England next weekend, they have already shown in this Championship that Andy Farrell has succeeded in his goal of making them a mentally strong team. The calamitous events that they experienced in Edinburgh this afternoon were straight out of an Irish supporters’ nightmares, and they had more than enough excuses to throw in the towel in a tough away fixture against a game opponent.
But as they did in Rounds 1 to 3, Ireland welcomed the challenges thrown at them today with open arms, and after a shaky period in the second half, their players seemed to revel in the chaos around them, battling their way to a remarkable victory that could easily have been capped off with a bonus point try if not for some profligacy in the final minutes. Ireland have pulled away from Scotland home and away in years gone by, but this is a much-improved Scottish outfit, so putting them to the sword them despite being depleted is a massive feather in Ireland’s cap.
Continuing in the same vein as their previous games in this Championship, Ireland were on track to strike within the first few minutes in Murrayfield today. The visitors smartly worked their way deep into the opposition red zone early on, and were unfortunate not to score an opportunistic try from a Scottish overthrow at the lineout:
This was called back for a fresh ball being used for the throw, a strange technicality that should have gone against Scotland (if anyone), but in hindsight, it was a sign that things weren’t going to go Ireland’s way in this fixture.
Once Scotland were let off the hook with the above, they began turning the screw on Ireland, and their vaunted back line caused the visitors serious problems in defence out wide, even with Johnny Sexton and Garry Ringrose back in the starting XV:
It was frustrating to see Ireland make defensive misreads and give Scotland space to attack with some lacklustre tackling and slow line speed, but they did demonstrate impressive resolve by recovering after defensive mistakes and scrambling back to make last-ditch tackles:
Duhan van der Merwe looked certain to either score or give a final pass/offload before someone else crossed the whitewash in the first clip above, but the urgency on Ireland’s part proved that they weren’t going to accept a completely awful start, and upon reflection, it was crucial that they didn’t let the game get away from them at such an early stage.
Refusing To Wilt
After ratcheting up the intensity following Mack Hansen’s brilliant try in the first half, things didn’t go according to plan for Ireland in the opening minutes of the second half. It was a rocky patch characterised by poor errors and made worse by Rónan Kelleher’s withdrawal due to a shoulder injury, and Josh van der Flier taking on lineout-throwing duties and Cian Healy scrummaging at hooker created that dreadful ‘one of those days’ feels to the game.
The former turned out to be a non-issue , but more importantly, the latter led to a major turning point in the game, with Healy’s weight providing Ireland with significant power in the scrum, yielding an important penalty for them in this department that ultimately led to James Lowe’s try:
Ireland’s fightback wasn’t all just blood and thunder, though. The most pleasing aspect of it was that they settled into their attacking patterns and worked the Scottish defence at different points along the line.
Jamison Gibson-Park brought a lot of pace and energy to proceedings off the bench, and this combined interplay between forwards and backs allowed Ireland to dominate the collisions and exploit space due to Scottish defenders tiring and being slow to get back into position:
It wasn’t perfect from Ireland even after they reasserted themselves in this game; there were plenty of handling errors that the players and coaches will be disappointed with, but the fact that they were happy to have a go at Scotland in several ways including taking risks and flinging the ball wide to good effect once they created space out there required incredible confidence and belief:
On the other side of the ball, they corrected their defensive errors from the first half, with better connection and line speed from their back line in defence:
Admittedly, Jack Conan’s try took the air out of Scotland’s tires, but it was still heartening to see Ireland shut their opponents down and pressure them into handling errors in a part of the field where they had struggled before half-time.
“Endure, Master Wayne”
It’s a mark of Ireland’s character that they didn’t let the occasion get to them today. They wouldn’t be the first team to let Grand Slam aspirations cause a slip-up, and as mentioned earlier, a loss given the trying circumstances could be forgiven, but Andy Farrell’s team are made of sterner stuff than that. Words like indefatigable or unwavering don’t begin to describe them and how they have stepped up to every challenge presented to them thus far in this tournament.
In spite of all the criticism that England have received for their abysmal display yesterday and their general playing style, they will not be the pushovers next Saturday that many seem to think. The embarrassment of their record loss to France at home will be enough on its own to trigger a response, and they know they will have to raise their game to play Ireland, and that’s all before you factor in progress under a new coaching ticket and improved cohesion with a fresh game plan.
Ireland will have to wait with bated breath to see how their squad will shape up ahead of next Saturday, and they may well have to deal with the unenviable task of facing an angry English team without the services of Rónan Kelleher, Dan Sheehan, Iain Henderson, Caelan Doris and Garry Ringrose (on top of Tadhg Beirne and Finlay Bealham already being unavailable), but considering how they have coped with everything that has been thrown at them so far, you wouldn’t bet against them sealing a Grand Slam with so many players missing.