The good news is that the areas of vulnerability last weekend are all fixable, writes Donal Lenihan.
In recent times the opening weekend of Six Nations action tended to be a little bit turgid. The fear of losing that all important opening game tended to force teams into more of a defensive mindset with the focus on avoiding defeat rather than chasing victory.
Scotland were having none of that and perhaps sensing their moment had come to deliver something spectacular — as it transpired a first opening day tournament win since 2006 — in a six-try thriller that will have left Ireland feeling somewhat cold.
While the follow-up encounter between England and France in Twickenham featured nothing like the free flowing, end-to-end stuff witnessed at Murrayfield it was, nonetheless, a really captivating game from start to finish.
England were put to the pin of their collar to overcome an improving French side who played the more attractive rugby on the day. With a massive forward unit feeding a backline with a refreshing desire to run and offload, the French will prove difficult opponents this time out. Their challenge now is to back that performance up and beat Scotland at the Stade de France on Saturday, an outcome that would prove welcome from an Irish perspective.
It was probably expecting too much for a third gripping contest in Rome, especially given the wind and rain that engulfed the Stadio Olimpico, but what transpired was a really awful game between two disappointing sides. The fact that Wales failed to secure a winning bonus point will hurt them over the next few weeks as I expect Italy won’t be as fortunate to avoid that fate as the tournament progresses.
Interestingly, no side managed a four-try bonus in any of the three contests while Ireland and France derived some consolation in defeat by returning from an away fixture with a losing bonus point for their efforts.
The full impact of the new bonus point system hasn’t really clicked in yet but the fact that Liam Williams was within an inch on the final play of securing the tournaments’s first four-try bonus point means that Wales returned to Cardiff feeling a little underwhelmed.
The close nature of the opening two contests only served to confirm the pre-tournament expectation that this could prove the most competitive Six Nations in years. If any side does manage to emerge unbeaten at the end of it then it will prove a thoroughly deserved Grand Slam.
Of the three remaining Slam contenders, I don’t see Wales or Scotland achieving that feat and if England ship any more injuries they won’t make it either. Even with their current resources, it looks unlikely at this stage with away trips to Cardiff and Dublin still to be negotiated.
The other new variable coming into this tournament that was expected to have a bearing on the outcome of some key game last weekend was the implementation of the new sanctions for high tackles. Thankfully that proved not to be the case with Jonny May’s yellow card for England, for a messy tackle on Gael Fickou, the only incident of note.
Given their form coming into this championship, Ireland were the biggest losers over the weekend with any possibility of a Grand Slam or Triple Crown evaporating on the first day of action. That losing bonus point however serves to keep their tournament aspirations alive.
If England do manage to secure a Grand Slam in Dublin on St Patrick’s weekend they will have extended their unbeaten run to a world record 19 games. Despite some close attempts, even New Zealand haven’t managed that.
When you consider that Eddie Jones was forced to start last Saturday against a monstrous French pack short five of his first choice forwards in Mako and Billy Vunipola, his line out general in George Kruis, along with former captain Chris Robshaw and James Haskell in the back row, the psychological benefit derived from that win will stand to his squad in time.
Ireland’s review of last Saturday’s game will not have made for pretty viewing. Their performance in Edinburgh was so unlike anything we have seen from a side coached by Joe Schmidt that it beggared belief.
The hallmark’s of Irish performances under the New Zealander surround a clinical efficiency, flawless execution and exemplary discipline. Ireland fell down on all of those fronts last Saturday. That coupled with a defensive naivety out wide — a problem that is recurring far too often — played into the skill set of Scottish wizard Stuart Hogg and set the team up for a fall.
Ireland’s scrum dominance mattered little on the day given that their was only one scrum in the entire game after the 23rd minute. Scotland avoided a bullet there. They are unlikely be so lucky in Paris next Sunday. What was more concerning for forward coach Simon Easterby was the inaccuracy surrounding the lineout.
On four separate occasions, in really advantageous positions, Ireland turned over crucial lineout possession either in the air or on the deck having won the ball initially. In a game-changing moment, one of those occurred just after overturning a 16-point deficit to lead by a point.
From a five-metre attacking line out after Devin Toner had won possession, CJ Stander and Ultan Dillane got their wires crossed, under pressure from John Barclay, and spilled the ball forward when it looked as if they were certain to score. With just 11 minutes left at that stage, had they done so to extend that lead to eight, you felt they would go on and win.
From that point on, their discipline left them down badly. Having only conceded two penalties in the opening half and seven in the entire game, Ireland were suckered into conceding four on the trot over the closing 10 minutes.
Perhaps an element of panic set in at that stage but the composure that was so evident over the Autumn series was sadly missing and Ireland paid a heavy price for that. Of more concern, the senior players in the set-up did little to support Rory Best in lifting the general malaise.
The good news is that the areas of vulnerability last weekend are all fixable. The defensive issues that impacted so badly in the opening half were rectified during the break but the fact that Ireland continue to overload on one side of the breakdown when fatigued is still a worry. The lineout malfunctions are unlikely to be repeated, especially if Donnacha Ryan is recalled to action which, in my opinion, he should be.
Ireland will revive their championship aspirations this weekend and bounce back with a win in Rome. Given that the weather conditions are forecast to be far more favourable then they were for the Welsh last Sunday, I expect Irish frustration levels to be eased even further by securing the tournament’s first try bonus point to go with the competition’s first ever losing one bagged in Edinburgh.
Elsewhere, home wins for France and Wales would probably suit Ireland’s cause better but, as we discovered last weekend, these games are getting harder to call which makes the championship all the better.
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