As shakedown games go, this one ended up being a little more shaky than Ireland might have expected. The final score said 19-12 to Ireland but that didn’t really tell the story of the game so much as gesture vaguely in the direction of the side that took their chances with more efficiency.
Make no mistake, Scotland showed up to play here. They were without Finn Russell but that barely mattered on a day when not many people could have complained if Scotland had come away with a win. Gregor Townsend seemed to learn the lessons of Yokohama and started the biggest bodies he could in his pack - front row, second row, and at #8 - and it paid off for Scotland almost immediately and throughout.
A little bit more accuracy in the 22 and we could be talking about a very different result here but as it is, I think Andy Farrell will be happy enough. Ireland were jaggy, a little confused structurally on both sides of the ball and under pressure in the scrum/maul, but they showed up to work in the hard moments in both halves and came out with a win. There won’t be dancing in the streets over it, but these are the small moments that build confidence in a group under new management.
The game itself wasn’t without incident. Caelan Doris had won a breakdown penalty inside the first three minutes but had to leave the field permanently a minute later after suffering a blow to the head. He would play no further part in proceedings.
Ireland took a bit of time to get consistent possession in the opening quarter but when they did, I thought we saw some encouraging glimpses of what Ireland might look like in a few games. That isn’t to say that it was perfect - it was far from that - but you can see Ireland starting to make a change with how they structured themselves on certain openside plays and on kick transition. Some of those counter-attacks on kick transition were a little ill-advised, in my opinion, but they showed more of a licence to try things.
You’d imagine Joe Schmidt glowering like a Sith Lord on the Monday review of some of Ireland’s early exits here - and maybe Andy Farrell and Mike Catt will be the same! - but it was something new at least.
As with all new things at the top level, it will take time for Ireland to get from where they were in 2019 to where we hope they will end up. It’s been just three months since Ireland’s World Cup exit and it would be tough to rejig a club side’s attack in that period. Ireland have had two quick camps at the tail end of 2019 and then the few weeks before this game to change what can be changed but it’s going to take a few games, a few hard weeks of training and a few tough reviews to start building what Mike Catt will want on the offensive side of the ball.
Whatever structures that Ireland are looking to build with the ball in hand, they won’t be done in two or three weeks. That was plenty evident here as Ireland swung from the old to what might be the new with startling frequency.
One area that will be of concern for Farrell and friends is Ireland’s under-performance in the tight five. If I was to point to where Ireland went wrong, I wouldn’t be looking at Conor Murray - everyone’s favourite bête noire right now - so much as I’d be looking at the engine room of Ireland’s attacking platform. The likes of Healy, Henderson and Herring had pretty average games for me all over the field (albeit all had at least one good individual moment each) and they dragged down Furlong and Ryan with them.
Anytime that Ireland have looked poor over the last 12 months, the roots of that underperformance have been squarely in the front five in settled phase play. When an Irish front five dominates those collisions, Ireland reliably dominates the game from start to finish. When the front five don’t dominate the game, Ireland can look like a car spinning its wheels looking for purchase on rough gravel. That will need to change next week.
Sexton will be pretty happy with his game, and why wouldn’t he? He scored Ireland’s only try and every point thereafter. Even at 34 years of age, he’s still Ireland’s #1 man at fly-half by some distance. The gap between him and his currently available challengers is cavernous at the moment.
The same can’t be said at scrum-half. The Murray and Cooney battle will continue for a while longer at least. Cooney looked sharp off the bench as the game broke up, but Murray - near intercept try aside - managed the game well for the first 60 minutes in the face of slow ball. There’s a bit to go in this battle for the starting #9 shirt and I think it’ll bounce back and forth as the Six Nations progresses.
I thought that the back row, as a collective, were superb in the face of serious Scottish pressure. Josh van der Flier was absolutely everywhere, to the point that I began to wonder how many guys in red scrum caps were out there. He’s comfortably one of the best defensive flankers in the game right now.
Peter O’Mahony came off the bench after four minutes and had a hugely abrasive game with massive offensive ruck numbers, one crucial breakdown steal on the Irish try line and a world class ruck slow down in the second half that killed a Scottish breakaway stone-dead.
But, for me, the game was dominated by CJ Stander. He won Player Of The Match on the night and it was richly deserved. A lot of people keep writing Stander off but he keeps writing himself back in. He showed the nonsense in the press of his imminent demise at Test level this week up for what it was - wishful thinking. He broke the gainline, repeatedly stopped Scotland in defence and won two absolutely crucial turnovers, including a game-winning jackal on his own try line.
It’s hard to know where Ireland are right now. Maybe they don’t fully know that themselves yet. In that light, I think they’ll take the win without too much cribbing, learn what they can about themselves and move onto a bigger challenge in Wales. Whatever about this week, I think the Welsh challenge will show us a lot more of where Andy Farrell’s Ireland are in this year’s pecking order.