Ireland shaken and stirred but still standing

Quite what impact Saturday’s Murrayfield result has on the next time Ireland meet Scotland in September’s key opening World Cup pool game in Yokohama remains to be seen but, right now, Joe Schmidt has more immediate problems to address, writes Donal Lenihan.

Ireland shaken and stirred but still standing

Quite what impact Saturday’s Murrayfield result has on the next time Ireland meet Scotland in September’s key opening World Cup pool game in Yokohama remains to be seen but, right now, Joe Schmidt has more immediate problems to address, writes Donal Lenihan.

This win puts Ireland back in championship contention — theoretically at least — even if they are not quite back in the groove. England’s landslide bonus point win over the lamentable French yesterday places them six points ahead of us after only two games not to mention a healthy points differential of +48.

With a casualty list growing game-by-game, the depth of Schmidt’s squad is being tested like never before. It is comforting, however, that the players coming in are putting their hands up and taking responsibility.

Chris Farrell has had to wait a year for his chance in green, having delivered a man of the match performance against Wales on his Six Nations debut, due to injury. Called to arms because of Robbie Henshaw’s latest injury setback, Farrell imposed himself, with his work-rate instrumental in setting up Ireland’s opening try from Conor Murray by chasing a lost cause and pressuring Tommy Seymour.

Ultan Dillane is sixth in the pecking order of Irish second rows sitting behind James Ryan, Devin Toner, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Beirne and Quinn Roux. Yet when summoned to replace his Connacht locking partner Roux, the Tralee man made a valuable impact.

In his 12 minutes of off the bench, Dillane delivered a crucial steal on an attacking Scottish line out, a couple of big tackles and a turnover penalty which proved crucial in closing out the game. Scotland were very much in the fight, even if facing an uphill battle after Joey Carbery’s sweetly struck penalty just prior to Dillane’s introduction re-established a two-score lead.

Carbery has been striking the ball sweetly ever since his off-day against Castres, showing a depth of character and resilience that was badly needed on this occasion. Johnny Sexton’s bravery and willingness to take the ball so flat on the gain line — despite the inevitable bone-crunching tackle which greets him — creates space for others by inviting defenders onto him.

The Scottish back row were queueing up to claim a prized scalp, with Josh Strauss, Jamie Ritchie and Ryan Wilson all landing big hits. The cumulative effect of those collisions forced Sexton’s early departure but not before he made his mark. One superb tip on pass, right on the gain line, opened a hole from which poacher supreme Jacob Stockdale sprinted to touch down under the posts.

Just two rounds into the championship, we have seen some really calamitous tries conceded by scrambling defenders. In round one Yoann Huget’s howler against Wales opened the door for Warren Gatland’s men to overturn a 16-point deficit. Stockdale’s fumble against England presented Elliot Daly with a gift but this time out, Ireland were the beneficiaries from a horrendous error by Seymour when his loose pass, under pressure from Farrell, was fumbled by Sean Maitland, handing a try to Murray against the run of play.

Scotland had the better of the early exchanges but Ireland not only survived that frantic period but led by nine points at the end of the first quarter, always a key factor when playing away from home. It helped Ireland’s cause enormously that the mercurial Stuart Hogg, who was creating havoc with his broken field running, was forced off after only 16 minutes. Stockdale’s try a minute after Hogg’s departure was a double whammy for the Scots to absorb.

Not that Ireland didn’t suffer themselves with Sexton forced off for a HIA from which he never returned after only 24 highly attritional minutes of action. From that point onwards, it was inevitable that Carbery would become the central figure.

When his pass was intercepted by Finn Russell, who ran 50 metres before offloading brilliantly to the supporting Sam Johnson for a try, only five minutes after his arrival, Ireland’s fortunes were very much dependent on how Carbery dealt with that setback.

Not for the first time, his temperament under pressure was sound, responding in the best possible way by converting a sloppy loose pass from Sean O’Brien into a searing midfield break, finished off with a magnificent pass at full pace off his left hand, to set up a crucial try for Keith Earls.

Ireland were made to work extremely hard for this win against a Scottish side that is definitely traveling in the right direction but lacks real power and a killer instinct. They had Ireland on the ropes when camped in their twenty two in the dying moments of a challenging opening half. A score of any description there would have put Scotland in the lead heading to the dressing room.

That they failed to score was down to a magnificent 25-phase defensive shift that Ireland put in, with every player contributing. Criticised last week for only delivering six dominant tackles against England, they doubled that count in that goalline stand alone.

It sent out a message to the slightly beleaguered looking Scots, as the pumped up Irish players sprinted off the field, that they were not going to be broken. That message appeared to stick as Scotland only managed three more points, from a solitary penalty, in the entire second half.

Ireland may be back to winning ways but, for some reason, the confidence and assurance that the team carried into every contest last season appears a little shaken at present. Once again they started the game slowly, were on the back foot from the outset with Scotland controlling the early territory.

Ireland’s kicking game was sub-standard for the second week in a row, presenting far too many opportunities for a menacing Scottish back three to counter and create havoc. On too many occasions, experienced players such as Murray and the returning Rob Kearney — who otherwise had a superb game via his mastery of covering the backfield and gaining yardage from counter attacks — kicked far too deep, turning over possession with no chance of retrieving it.

Much credit for the swift return to winning ways goes to the efficiency of Ireland’s set piece. The scrum was rock solid throughout along with generating a few precious, pressure relieving, penalties while the line out, despite the absence of Devin Toner, enjoyed a blemish-free 100% return along with three crucial steals on the Scottish throw. In that, it was comforting to see James Ryan, still only 22, step into the role of senior lock and assume a more commanding presence as Ireland’s go to ball winner along with Peter O’Mahony.

In a game where Ireland were scrambling to survive at times, it seems churlish to bemoan the loss of a potential, four-try, winning bonus point but when you have three on the board with 24 minutes left to play, it becomes a factor.

In light of a much changed Welsh side’s failure to register a winning bonus point against Italy in Rome, that might yet prove significant in this championship. Right now the two-week break before Ireland visit the Stadio Olimpico, could not be better timed.

Some of the players looked exhausted at the final whistle, with many carrying visible bumps and bruises. Italy looked better at times against an understrength Welsh side, but with Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and Tadhg Beirne all expected to be available for selection, that game could be just what’s required for Ireland to rediscover their attacking mojo.

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Saturday, November 27, 2021

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