Donal Lenihan: The win is a start. But no more than that

Donal Lenihan: The win is a start. But no more than that
The returning Devin Toner is a happy camper after winning the late penalty which took the pressure off Ireland in the Six Nations clash against Scotland. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Earlier in the week, new head coach Andy Farrell made the point that he wanted his Irish team to stand for something.

On his maiden assignment, in a Six Nations game that went right to the wire, the thing that will please him most was the character displayed by each and every player, especially when Scotland were pummelling the Irish line with less than three minutes to go.

A converted try at that stage would have resulted in a draw, an outcome that would immediately have seen Ireland out of the reckoning for a Grand Slam and Triple Crown if not the championship itself.

The fact that Ireland prevailed at the end was as much down to Scottish profligacy, especially in the opening half when they squandered a number of gilt-edged scoring chances, coupled with an inexcusable error from their new captain Stuart Hogg in the second half when dropping the ball in the act of scoring without an Irish player in touching distance.

A palpable air of expectancy hung over the Ballsbridge area of Dublin in the build-up to the 4.45 pm kickoff. By and large, this was Ireland as we knew them under Joe Schmidt. The only new kid on the block was Caelan Doris with his Leinster team-mate Ronan Kelleher the only other rookie in Andy Farrell’s matchday squad.

As it happened the unfortunate Doris won’t remember his first cap with any great fondness, having been forced off the field after three minutes of action.

The fact that he manufactured a penalty from his first involvement — an excellent poach at the breakdown 90 seconds in — set him up perfectly only to be forced off after an accidental clash of heads and a failed head injury assessment. He will have better days.

This Scotland side was completely revamped and reshaped after Gregor Townsend choose to tear up his regular team sheet and start again after an underwhelming World Cup.

In a sense then, a new beginning for both sides hoping to kick off their Six Nations campaign with that all-important, morale-boosting win.

Speaking pre-match, Gregor Townsend attempted to calm the waters: “I don’t know if we have a point to prove. What I can say is that the team have prepared really well, the intensity levels and communication in training have been excellent. Things have gone well, but we know mindset has a big part to play in high-level sport.”

I recall he said something very similar before the pool opener in Japan. The problem for Scotland recently has been an inability to transfer decent preparation from the training pitch into performances on match day. Not on this occasion.

Scotland were hurting and their players stood up to be counted.

In the search for something different Townsend gambled with elements of his selection, opting for a largely unknown figure outside Edinburgh in No 8 Nick Haining, making his Scottish debut at 29 despite the fact that Fijian International Villame Mata regularly starts ahead of him in the Edinburgh back row.

Alongside him up front, his Edinburgh teammate Rory Sutherland. Given that he is ranked third choice loose head prop behind Pierre Schoeman and Jamie Bhatti and has only started two games for Edinburgh all season — against Bordeaux Begles and Wasps in the Challenge Cup — that selection also caught many by surprise.

Townsend was brave with his selections and came within a whisker of securing a very creditable draw on the road.

Donal Lenihan: The win is a start. But no more than that

That Ireland led by four points at the break was more a reflection on Scotland’s inability to convert promising scoring opportunities in the Irish 22 into points. On four separate occasions, off an attacking five metre line out and from broken play, the visitors failed to keep their composure and protect the ball.

Brilliant poaches at vital times by CJ Stander and Peter O Mahony not only stemmed the tide but manufactured penalties that enabled Ireland clear their lines. When Stander saved the day with a crucial turnover penalty after a monumental defensive stand from all and sundry in green with the clock ticking towards the red, the collective sigh of relief, from the coaching box to the stands, was as audible as it was visible.

Townsend must have been raging with his players’ inability to retain their composure and their discipline — they conceded 14 penalties — yet hugely encouraged by the manner with which they carried the fight to Ireland.

They were more physical up front, won the collisions and, surprisingly, stressed the Irish scrum.

They also created mayhem at the breakdown aided, it has to be said, by a complete failure of French referee Mathieu Raynal to police that crucial area. Time and again they managed to slow down Irish ball which placed Conor Murray under constant pressure.

Ireland’s inability to tie in the Scottish forwards meant there was very little space available to attack. That said, Ireland had five crucial breakdown turnovers which contributed massively towards winning the game.

When they did manage to lift the tempo, Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose looked very sharp and created opportunities for a lively back three in Jacob Stockdale, Jordon Larmour and Andrew Conway to stress the Scottish defence. Unfortunately, those opportunities were few and far between and the loss of Ringrose to a hand injury at half time proved costly.

The quality of Ireland’s scramble defence saved the day, with the likes of Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson who upped his work rate significantly and also contributed two vital line out steals, James Ryan and Rob Herring all making significant tackles at vital times.

With so many work-ons in key areas such as the scrum, the maul and variation at lineout time, the most positive aspect of Saturday’s performance was the result.

To start the championship with a win, especially when playing at home, is absolutely vital.

Donal Lenihan: The win is a start. But no more than that

Ireland achieved that despite shortcomings that will have to be addressed as the quality of opposition ratchets up a few notches over the next three weeks.

Despite scoring 42 points, Wales didn’t exactly look like world-beaters in their predictable dismissal of Italy.

Their line out was suspect, the Italian’s exposed vulnerability in their scrum and, with Shaun Edwards now plying this trade with France, their defence around the fringes and out wide had an unusual air of uncertainty.

My one concern is that Wales faced nothing like the physical examination Ireland endured with an accompanying injury toll that, at the very least, will compromise preparations.

Losing Doris, Ringrose, Furlong, and Dave Kilcoyne to injury is a big worry.

With so many things for a new management team to address in advance of the opening game, the focus can now shift from freshening things up within the camp to the main task at hand, namely match preparation itself.

Now that Farrell and his coaches have specific reference points to operate from, I expect to see improvements next weekend.

On this evidence, to beat Wales, there will have to be.

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