The most pressing issue that needs to be addressed before travelling to Rome is the ease with which Ireland concede metres on the outside, writes Donal Lenihan.
So much for a grandstand Grand Slam, showdown in Dublin on St Patrick’s weekend. Even England struggled to keep that now defunct finale alive with the French turning up at Twickenham on Saturday and pushing them all the way before holding on to their unbeaten record under Eddie Jones.
An opening day defeat is always difficult to stomach. It’s a long time since Scotland played smarter rugby than this Irish team but that’s what happened as Murrayfield rocked to a famous home victory.
Scotland have promised to deliver on so many occasions in the past but all too often flattered to deceive. Not this time and Ireland, forewarned that this was an ever-improving Scottish side going places, were punished for dipping well below the high standards set in all their recent international outings.
This opening game marked an electrifying start to the championship, with an absolutely cracking contest, but one that Ireland will look back on with much disappointment and a lot of regret. A historic first ever bonus point, a losing one, was not what Ireland had in mind when the new system was introduced.
Joe Schmidt will look back on Saturday with a degree of frustration and annoyance as Ireland were bullied at the breakdown and in the tackle, enabling Scotland to sprint into a 14-point lead in the opening quarter. After years of being on the receiving end of the combined forces of Irish provincial and international rugby, Scotland delivered big time and how the Murrayfield faithful savoured it.
Ireland carried so many positives into this game, not least the excellent recent form displayed by Munster and Leinster, coupled with those brilliant wins over New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, that even the loss of Johnny Sexton and Peter O’Mahony failed to dampen expectation.
Rarely have Ireland had so many dynamic ball carriers yet were continuously thwarted throughout that opening half in their efforts to generate forward momentum and get over the gain line. CJ Stander and Sean O’Brien were double teamed in the tackle every time they received possession as the Gray brothers, Josh Strauss and Zander Fagerson refused to yield.
In total Scotland were forced to make 98 more tackles than Ireland - second row Jonny Grey made an amazing 28 tackles alone - yet had sufficient reserves of stamina and desire to finish off the job in the final eight minutes when it looked as if Ireland might just steal the spoils.
A failure to close out tight games has been a particular weakness of this group of Scottish players so this win could well prove a watershed in their impressive developments under Vern Cotter.
The thing that will disappoint Schmidt most is that Scotland appeared more up for the fight and brought far more physicality to the cause on the day. That coupled with a resurfacing of the vulnerability in defence in the outside channels that caused so many problems for Ireland in the championship last season. That facilitated Scotland in delivering two early hammer blows with classy tries from the elusive Stuart Hogg in the opening quarter alone. He was offered far too much freedom.
The one area of dominance Ireland did enjoy was in the scrum but when it mattered most, with Scotland forced to feed twice within five metres of their own line, Ireland failed to take full advantage. It was to prove that kind of day.
It didn’t help either that surprisingly, in demanding conditions, there were only six scrums in the entire game. Scotland will have reason to be thankful for that as it enabled them survive an area of deficiency that, on another day, is likely to prove far more costly.
Despite the fact that Ireland displayed admirable character in turning a 16-point deficit into a one point lead, it was their failure to kick on from there that will rankle most. Much of that was due to an uncharacteristic failure to control the ball in contact and deliver quicker possession for Conor Murray to use.
Given that the scrum half was always going to be a target for a rampant Scottish back row, on far too many occasions throughout the game Murray was forced to go digging for possession which bought vital seconds for Scotland to set a voracious blue defensive line. Their impressive line speed frustrated Ireland no end and when in doubt, the hosts were happy to concede penalties in their defensive zone without ever appearing to force Romain Poite to consider brandishing a yellow card.
This contest bore all the hallmarks of so many of those smash and grab Scottish victories of the distant past. Schmidt smelt conspiracy even before kick off when the team bus was delayed, arriving at the stadium eight minutes later that scheduled. From that moment forward it appeared as if Ireland were on the back foot.
Scotland made light of their early difficulties in the scrum and focused their set piece attention on attacking Ireland in the air at the line out, disrupting the quality of possession delivered. They also succeeded in negating the impact of the famed Irish maul. Ireland were also made to work extremely hard in phase play, expending massive amounts of energy for very little territorial gain.
The other thing that will grate was the complete lack of concentration that allowed Scottish centre Alex Dunbar stand totally unnoticed and unmarked in an attacking line out five metres from Ireland’s line in a clearly rehearsed training ground move. It is the type of thing that you will only get away with once but the seven points proved invaluable. That lack of awareness was symptomatic of a general malaise displayed on the day.
Yet despite performing well below par, Ireland will look back with particular regret on that final quarter when they had chances to put the game to bed but failed to execute. The penalty conceded by Paddy Jackson - who otherwise had a very decent game - in the tackle which enabled Scotland’s impressive captain Greig Laidlaw to kick his side back into a two point lead with eight minutes to go was also a bit naive.
The most pressing issue that needs to be addressed before travelling to Rome next weekend is the ease with which Ireland concede metres on the outside. The cohesion and understanding that underpinned those excellent performances against New Zealand and Australia last November was missing with to many defenders caught in two minds.
The difficulty with a tournament of this nature is that there is so little time to affect quick fixes but you expect that defence coach Andy Farrell will have a busy week and that the Italians will feel the brunt of Irish frustrations when they travel to the Stadio Olimpico next weekend.
On the evidence of their opening day showing against Wales yesterday, they may have a new coach in Conor O’Shea but the same issues that have bedevilled them over the last decade are still there for Ireland to exploit. Right now for the Irish players that redemptive trip to Rome can’t come soon enough.
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