DONAL LENIHAN: Irish eyes turn to Twickenham finale

Saturday offered a glimpse of what Ireland’s rugby future might look like when Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell, Ronan O’Gara and David Wallace depart the international scene on a permanent basis.

Accepting that Scotland have their limitations, there was so much to admire in Ireland’s comprehensive 32-14 Six Nations victory, not least the contribution from some of the less experienced brigade.

When Sean O’Brien was forced out of the Irish team on the back of the other high-profile casualties, the sense grew that Saturday’s contest was going to be a real test of character. Paul O’Connell is one of those special players that inspire those around him by his presence alone. With Brian O’Driscoll also an absentee, it meant Ireland had to negotiate a Six Nations contest without at least one of those inspirational totems for the first time since facing Italy in Rome in 2001.

In such circumstances leaders emerge. Despite living off crumbs of possession and falling six points in arrears to two Scottish penalties early on, Ireland had the composure, vision and confidence to back themselves when offered opportunities in the Scottish 22. For years now we have become accustomed to the little conflab between O’Connell and O’Gara (even when O’Driscoll is on the field), discussing the merits or otherwise of going for points from the boot or going for broke with a five metre lineout when awarded a penalty.

On this occasion a seamless transition was seen to best effect when new captain Rory Best and the conductor at out-half, Jonny Sexton, had the briefest of discussions before spurning three points in search of a greater dividend. They backed themselves, despite losing that crucial lineout in the exact same position against France last Sunday and delivered a perfectly executed training ground move which will have thrilled stand-in forwards coach Anthony Foley. That moment confirmed the fact that, despite all the injury enforced absentees and the rearguard action Ireland were forced to endure to that point, there would be no panic. It had a calming effect on the team and from that moment Ireland were in control. When Scotland were offered a similar opportunity later in that opening half — and in spite of the fact Ireland were under a yellow card warning from New Zealand referee Chris Pollock for collapsing successive lineout mauls — the Scots lost their nerve and took the three points. Once again Ireland gambled and hit the jackpot.

This Scottish outfit is devoid of any confidence and the recurring habit of conceding soft tries is killing them. Eoin Reddan just couldn’t believe his luck when stopped just metres from the Scottish line, three defenders lost their bearings allowing the scrum-half to get back on his feet and fall unopposed over the line. The defence for Andrew Trimble’s try on the stroke of half time was equally shambolic.

The big question hanging over Ireland coming into this game was how they would compete against a gigantic Scottish pack without a Lions captain and last season’s European Player of the Year. Peter O’Mahony was offered the demanding No 7 role, even though he has very limited experience in the position. We need not have worried. As with every challenge that has been put his way over the course of a comparatively short professional career, he dealt with the pressures and demands with consummate ease. He is better suited to the role of open side than O’Brien, who does all his best work with ball in hand. O’Mahony is a smart rugby player and will only get better with more exposure at this level but was also fortunate to have a player of Stephen Ferris’s quality beside him. Ferris has been Ireland’s most consistent performer in this championship and Jamie Heaslip also raised his game, recognising that the senior men needed to offer more. He did.

Ireland’s lineout was also going to be tested to the full and despite losing their first contest of the day with an over throw to the tail, it recovered to produce some quality ball. Foley cleverly introduced an old ploy where the call is made early, before the lineout is formed and the players arrive late with the throw coming immediately which afforded the Scottish players little time to mark up their opponents. Ireland also made the conscious decision not to contest five metre defensive lineouts in the air in order to repel the Scottish drive on the deck.

When they did contest in the air, Ireland were the first team in this year’s championship to pilfer a Scottish throw, with Donnacha Ryan proving every bit as athletic in this respect as O’Connell. Ryan, like O’Mahony, starting a Six Nations game for the first time, had a marvellous outing, carrying with good effect, off-loading and putting in a full shift in the contact area and in the scrum. Alongside him, Donncha O’Callaghan also stepped up and carried far more ball than is normally the case when O’Connell plays.

The real bonus however was the scrum. Scotland have a decent unit, with the bonus of springing 2009 Lion Euan Murray from the bench early in the second half. It mattered not. When you really want to humiliate an opponent, you dismantle their scrum and that is exactly what Ireland achieved. There is nothing more deflating for a backline than to see their scrum in retreat which sets them on the back foot immediately. Ireland’s front row of Best, Cian Healy and Mike Ross smelt the weakness and went after it with a ruthlessness that we haven’t seen from an Irish front row for some time. To a previous generation of rugby dinosaurs, that was poetry in motion.

Even a much-changed Irish bench played its part, with Fergus McFadden weighing in with the only second half try, Tomas O’Leary offering a timely reminder he still has much to offer and Sean Cronin demonstrating once again that his explosive pace is a priceless asset against tiring opposition.

This win will work wonders for a hard worked Irish squad after the disappointments of Paris and the opening day flop against Wales with one more challenging test to come in Twickenham next Saturday. The fact that an ever-improving England succeeded where Ireland just came short by beating France in a gripping match in Paris yesterday will make that final encounter even more difficult.


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