SCOTLAND 13 IRELAND 22
It is not often you can regard a championship Test match as a dress rehearsal. After all, this is the big one, the Guinness Six Nations, rugby’s greatest championship say the marketing men, who for once, may just be right, and certainly the oldest and revered.
These high-octane weekends in February and March are no place for the faint-hearted nor a testing ground for innovation and experimentation, rather the apex of competitive rivalry between the nearest of neighbours.
Yet, still. Given the backdrop to Ireland’s trip to Edinburgh, the catalogue of injuries and bruised egos that shook the 2018 Grand Slam winners to their foundations in the wake of the previous week’s demolition by England on home soil as well as the pressure that defeat then placed on this second-round fixture away from home; given all that, this victory over Scotland at Murrayfield on Saturday afternoon was as near as any coaching group could get to an acid test for the development of a squad that in similar circumstances in a World Cup quarter-final four years ago crumbled at the hands of Argentina.
And there can be no greater comparison from 2015 to the present than the way Ireland saw out their victory having lost Johnny Sexton to a failed Head Injury Assessment just 23 minutes into the contest.
At that World Cup, Ireland had lost Sexton late on in their preparations and his game management and leadership was sorely missed as an inexperienced Ian Madigan, the main man’s understudy at Leinster, was thrown in at the deep end to an already injury-hit side and Ireland struggled to stay afloat.
Four years on and Sexton’s replacement was Joey Carbery, once his provincial understudy also but now a regular starting fly-half at Munster. And despite an early wobble that saw his pass intercepted by Finn Russell for a Sam Johnson try on 28 minutes that reduced Ireland’s nine-point lead to just two at 12-10, the 23-year-old grew in composure to not only steer Ireland to victory but produce the line break for Ireland’s third try that proved so pivotal to victory, breaking that near stalemate and opening up a 19-10 lead on 55 minutes.
Yet this was far from pretty rugby. The contest was certainly not a classic and it was not a genuinely good performance from Schmidt’s Ireland. They lacked fluency, were inaccurate and yet again started shakily. Yet in scoring three tries through Conor Murray, Jacob Stockdale and the matchwinner created by Carbery for Keith Earls, Ireland saw off a strong Scotland side in their own backyard.
They rebounded with substance rather than style to condemn the hosts to a first home Six Nations defeat since their opening game of 2016 and score a psychological blow ahead of their next meeting in the opening pool fixture of their 2019 World Cup campaigns in Japan on September 22.
And they did it by laying down some solid foundations in terms of squad depth and resilience. This championship may yet elude Schmidt in his final Six Nations before standing down as head coach after the World Cup but he can at least look towards that tournament with increased confidence following this outing.
“I said during the week that if we’d never won one of these (Grans Slams) before we would be even more gutted (after losing to England). But we’ve done well in the Six Nations in the last five years so if it doesn’t come to pass this year there is a big thing at the end of the year for us. And any time we get the opportunity to blend guys in and be forced to make late changes and be forced to reconstruct what we do on the pitch, it helps vaccinate us against what happened last time. While no vaccination is 100 per cent you are hoping that inch by inch you can get a little bit more comfortable and confident that people can step in and do a job.”
This was also a victory that keeps hopes of a successful title defence alive but if Ireland are to profit from any slip-up by the front runners between now and March 16, they will have to play an awful lot better than they did at Murrayfield, as Schmidt recognises.
With a visit to Rome and Italy in Stadio Olimpico on February 24, followed the visit of France to Dublin on March 10 and a tough trip to Wales just six days later, Ireland will have to resort to type and develop that much-needed fluency throughout the rest of this tournament.
“It has tended to in past championships,” Schmidt added, “we have tended to be a bit slow starting. I thought the fluency, you know, we had two tries in the first quarter. For me that’s a relatively good reward and you know the set-play that we did score off, that needs a bit of fluency. But then, when you lose your hub it is a big call to suddenly say well, you are not going to miss a beat and so we did miss a few beats and we did put a few passes down.
“Even then, twice, Rob Kearney looked like he was almost away to score. He looked for Chris Farrell back on the inside and if that pass goes to hand, Chris Farrell scores. We weren’t far away from breaking down what’s a really good defence. I’d like us to be creating even more so we can capitalise on more of them.”
SCOTLAND: S Hogg (B Kinghorn, 16); T Seymour, H Jones, S Johnson (P Horne, 69), S Maitland; F Russell, G Laidlaw - captain (A Price, 69); A Dell (J Bhatti, 69), S McInally (F Brown, 65), S Berghan (D Rae, 69); G Gilchrist, J Gray; R Wilson (R Harley, h-t), J Ritchie (R Harley, 35-40), J Strauss.
IRELAND: R Kearney; K Earls, C Farrell, B Aki, J Stockdale (J Larmour, 71); J Sexton (J Carbery, 23), C Murray (J Cooney, 77); C Healy (D Kilcoyne, 56), R Best - captain (S Cronin, 71), T Furlong (A Porter, 68); J Ryan, Q Roux (U Dillane, 68); P O’Mahony, S O’Brien (J van der Flier, 65), J Conan.
Referee: Romain Poite (France).