The loss to Argentina may be the defeat that itches away at Joe Schmidt more than any other but Ireland’s defeat to Scotland at the foothills of last season’s Six Nations was, in some respects, a far more frustrating affair, writes Brendan O'Brien.
The Pumas caught an Irish side weakened by the loss of considerable experience and class due to injury and suspension when the sides met in Cardiff in 2015. Less than 18 months later and Ireland were in much finer fettle.
New Zealand had been accounted for in Chicago three months earlier and, with South Africa beaten the previous summer and the calendar year rounded off with a win over Australia, Ireland had accounted for the full set of SANZAR scalps inside six months.
The Six Nations couldn’t come soon enough.
Everyone could see signs of a Scottish rebirth but Ireland had beaten them four times on the spin with an average winning margin of 17 points so the expectation was that they would move on to Italy and round two with at least four points in the bag.
“We arrived at the stadium 10 or 15 minutes late and we were late for most things in the first half,” Schmidt told RTÉ after the game following a transport delay. “It’s particularly tough to take. We were well off our game and I think the Scottish attack took advantage of that.”
A week later and the Kiwi was still rueing ‘Busgate’. It was unlike him but then he simply wasn’t used to losing to Scottish sides.
He had come second best in three of his first five meetings with Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh at Leinster but then put together an unbeaten 15-game run against that pair and the Scottish national side until the surprise 27-22 loss in Murrayfield.
Ireland have actually lost one in every three games played against the Scots over the past decade and they aren’t the only side to have reason to approach them with caution. They have proven to be potentially tricky customers, regardless of form, for a long time.
Scotland have played 45 games under either Cotter or Townsend and accounted for Argentina, France, Ireland, Australia and now England in that spell. The Aussies were beaten with 29 points to spare last November. New Zealand escaped Edinburgh with a win by little more than the grace of God.
Ireland, South Africa, Argentina and Australia had all come a cropper to Scottish sides under previous regimes in the 45-game stretch prior to that but the difference since Cotter took over and Townsend picked up the baton is a surge in consistency.
A win ratio of 40% has shot up to 55% under the pair so Schmidt was hardly taken aback by the news last Saturday that Eddie Jones’ lads had been turned over in Edinburgh by a Scottish side that is still technically in the running for the championship as they prepare for their Dublin visit.
“I do know that the All Blacks were really under the pump and … Stuart Hogg gets through and he is so close to rounding the last player,” said Schmidt. “I know he throws it back inside because he’s going to go into touch but that could easily have been a five or seven-pointer and suddenly they get their first-ever win against a very good All Blacks side.
“So, you saw that. You saw what they did to Australia. I know Sekope Kepu got that red card and it was against 14 players but even before he went off they were in front and were playing really well. So, the warning signs were there in the autumn. They had one hiccup and then they built back into a game.
“They were 10-0 down, 17-7 down against France, and Huw Jones runs a great line, back in the game and they eke out a win. Then, really, they have proved it again. Knowing Gregor, they’re going to have little things that they make sure they tweak and improve again. We know we’re going to have to be better than we were on Saturday.”
The problem for the Scots is their inability to transfer their increasingly impressive home form to other venues when it comes to the Six Nations although their last notable spring success was recorded in D4.
Declan Kidney’s side was looking to back up the previous year’s Grand Slam with a Triple Crown in 2010 only for Dan Parks to claim a 23-20 win with a 78th-minute penalty. Making matters worse was the knowledge that it was the last game at Croke Park before the return to Lansdowne Road.
A damp squib all round, then.
Ireland went a full decade without a win against the Scots starting in 1989, one measly draw at Lansdowne Road in 1994 the only break in the misery, but they haven’t lost games back-to-back to these Celtic cousins since.
Next Saturday would be a terrible time to change that.
This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.