Escape to victory against Scots not a good look for the new Ireland

It may have been Hogg with the schoolboy error but Ireland's report card is clear: must do better, writes Brendan O'Brien.

Escape to victory against Scots not a good look for the new Ireland

Hopes, ambitions, targets, expectations. Whatever the vocabulary you cared for, this wasn't the vision anyone had for a rebooted Ireland. Not when they had to scramble on their own try line with the clock almost dead, kicking to touch to kill the contest and keep the Scots at bay.

Not a good look.

For all their travails last year, Ireland hosed Scotland in Yokohama when the sides last met at the World Cup. They had lost to the visitors here in Dublin just the once in over 20 years. This shouldn't have been so close. So enervating. Wales, having filleted Italy earlier, will travel to Dublin next week with ambitions broadened.

This was meant to be a new dawn after a disastrous 2019, but the clean slate handed to Andy Farrell in 2020 has been sullied somewhat by this muddied effort. So much so that it was put to him afterwards that maybe he was a tad relieved to have come away with a first-up win.

“I wouldn't day relief. I would say delighted to get the win. I thought we clearly deserved the win although it was a good, tough old test match. It was very attritional. Scotland's forwards were excellent. Defensively they were hitting hard and we know what threat they can be with ball in hand and we had to dig deep plenty of times.

Ireland players celebrate winning a late penalty on their own try-line. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Ireland players celebrate winning a late penalty on their own try-line. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

“You could sum up our performance in the last five minutes, really,” he added on the back of a 19-12 win in which Jonathan Sexton scored all of his side's points. “We asked the lads all week to stand for something and I think you could see the true grit, especially some of those tight five boys who had to dig deep.”

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell speaks to his players at the Aviva Stadium. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ireland head coach Andy Farrell speaks to his players at the Aviva Stadium. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Farrell made mention of the injuries that forced his hand with substitutions earlier than he would have liked with Caelan Doris (after just five minutes of a debut), Garry Ringrose, Dave Kilcoyne and Tadhg Furlong all carrying some manner of knock as they vacated the field.

Sexton was in tune with Farrell in focusing on the good and not the bad.

This was all about the win, the captain said, and avoiding the situation that faced them this time 12 months ago when the opening home defeat to England ended any shot at a Triple Crown and Grand Slam and left them playing catch-up in the table from the off.

Jonathan Sexton goes over to Ireland's opening try at the Aviva Stadium. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton goes over to Ireland's opening try at the Aviva Stadium. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

This could certainly have been worse had Stuart Hogg not added has name to the canon of players who have now let slip of the ball when poised to score at this stadium in recent years. A try then, with 50 minutes played, and Adam Hastings had a conversion to bring the sides level.

This was that close.

“Schoolboy error,” said Hogg. “I can't change what's happened, I just have to deal with it. I've apologised to the boys. We got ourselves into some good positions through the forwards' hard work and bitterly disappointed not to finish it off.”

Gregor Townsend certainly didn't hold it against his skipper. “It's an error, you flush it and move on,” said the Scotland coach who revealed that Hogg had been ill on Thursday and that two others had suffered similar afflictions when they awoke this morning.

They should all be sick by now because this was one they coughed up.

Scotland’s Stuart Hogg knocks the ball on at the try line. Photo: INPHO/Dan Sheridan
Scotland’s Stuart Hogg knocks the ball on at the try line. Photo: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Ireland did some things well enough. They'll be thrilled with their ability to limit the Scots to six points despite the eleven visits Townsend's men made to their 22, and there were some superb individual efforts, but the attacking game continues to misfire.

There are some allowances to be made there. Referee Mathieu Raynal blew for 23 penalties and the stop-start nature of the game was only heightened from an Irish perspective by a very decent performance from the Scottish pack.

But still... There were some signs of evolution. Jordan Larmour and others looked to run the ball out of their own 22 at times, and Sexton's first-half try was as clever as it was beautiful, but there was far too much reliance again on box kicks and Garryowens. The Scots lacked a killer touch but they played some scintillating rugby.

Farrell spoke of “glimpses” in attacking terms but suggested that his players got carried away at times and were a bit wayward. A work in progress, he said, accentuating instead the true Irish grit shown and adding that the rest of the game will come over time.

It will need to.

“We knew it was going to be tough,” said Sexton. “It's always difficult to just come together and come up with the perfect game but I thought we saw glimpses of what we could do and some of the ideas that we had. We could never get that two scores clear even though we had chances to do it.

“When you go that two scores clear it gives you the chance to open it up and try and get that next score but when it is four points, seven points it is just an arm wrestle and you are trying to keep playing in the right areas.”

It may have been Hogg with the schoolboy error but Ireland's report card is clear: must do better.

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