If Andy Farrell proves to be nothing more than a lucky general, then Ireland supporters are in for one hell of a ride in the coming years.
The first-time head coach had plenty of it in his opening game as Ireland got their 2020 Guinness Six Nations off to a winning start.
There were also signs in the performance of Farrell’s first 23-man selection to suggest that amid the untidiness and good fortune that was enough to overcome a still-limited but more competitive Scotland outfit, Saturday’s opening offering could be a building block to a brighter future.
For now, though, we are in “we’ll take the win” territory, though Farrell was spinning a more positive line than that post-match at the Aviva Stadium after incoming captain Johnny Sexton had scored all the points, including the first try of the new era, to overcome the Scots.
This was an old-fashioned Six Nations arm-wrestle against a side bearing grudges after a World Cup pool drubbing by the Irish in late September and galvanised by the self-inflicted absence of star playmaker Finn Russell following a disciplinary breach the previous week.
Gregor Townsend’s side bristled with intent and physicality and made life difficult for Farrell’s men but lacked the final flourish inside the home 22 to make it count. Ireland, on the other hand, took theirs with the clinical cutting edge that bodes well for the new regime but the fact Sexton’s crossing of the whitewash was the only success in this regards means there is plenty to work on before a buoyant Wales visit Dublin this Saturday.
While Ireland’s first steps under new management were stuttering, the Welsh were cutting loose in their opening competitive outing under former Scarlets head coach Wayne Pivac, putting Italy to the sword 42-0 in Cardiff.
Plenty for the freshly minted Irish think tank to ponder there although while the main man inferred the scrappy nature of his team’s performance sprang from an overeagerness to please the new boss, the overall picture was of a squad that had given itself a springboard into the rest of the Championship.
“Yeah, I think they feel … certainly at half-time coming in, that we’re making good ground. As in, we’re progressing a little bit,” Farrell said.
“It got a little bit untidy from time to time. Scotland had a lot to do with that, and so will Wales next week.
These things take time but you still have to have the fundamentals of the game and I thought they got us over the line.
So too did a piece of outrageous good luck on 50 minutes as Scotland, trailing 10-6 at half-time and 13-6 four minutes into the second period, had Ireland under the cosh having launched off a lineout. With a penalty advantage, they pulled the trigger, sending the ball out wide to the left corner where the captain and full-back Stuart Hogg was waiting unmarked. Having collected the pass, the British & Irish Lion then remarkably dropped the ball over the line.
“A schoolboy error,” explained a contrite Hogg of his misdemeanour. No wonder he was gutted. If the Scottish skipper had executed properly, a conversion from the touchline could have levelled the scores, given the visitors a huge momentum swing, and completely changed the complexion of this contest but instead, Ireland were off the hook.
The scrap continued, penalties were exchanged a couple of times between Sexton and Scotland’s stand-in fly-half Adam Hastings and though Townsend’s side finished the stronger, a timely breakdown turnover on the Irish line from man of the match CJ Stander snuffed out the men in blue’s final shot at parity.
Farrell will need much, much more this weekend. “Yeah, it was a little bit stop-start,” he admitted of what he had described as an “attritional” contest. “I thought the Scottish forwards did pretty well. The set-piece was a tough old battle so I think we’ll get better.
"I thought Rob Herring’s throwing and Iain Henderson’s calling was really good but I think it was stuff across the board.”
Certainly, the last defensive stand will have been good for morale heading towards the second round and Farrell seemed to place a lot of store in that show of character from his players, lauding their “Irish grit” when earlier injuries to debutant Caelan Doris, absent through a concussion from the eighth minute, similarly Dave Kilcoyne after 51, could have taken a toll on those still standing
“Some people were staying on longer than they would have done in the past but they were leading the way in the last five minutes. I thought it was outstanding. I said to them at half-time, I thought there were a lot of things going on that we’d done well.
"They felt like when we got an opportunity we were really in the ascendancy and taking it to them as far as their attack was concerned. But when you’ve got a base that, sometimes it wasn’t perfect when they’d make a line-break or whatever but the will to fight, to stay strong on your own line was tremendous, and we can certainly build on that.”
Ireland will have to build, the road ahead does not get any easier.
J Larmour; A Conway, G Ringrose (R Henshaw, ht), B Aki, J Stockdale; J Sexton capt (R Byrne, 72), C Murray (J Cooney, 60); C Healy (D Kilcoyne, 49-51; A Porter, 65), R Herring (R Kelleher, 72), T Furlong (Healy 78); I Henderson (D Toner, 67), J Ryan; CJ Stander, J van der Flier, C Doris (P O’Mahony, 8).
S Hogg capt; S Maitland, H Jones (C Harris, 65), S Johnson (R Hutchinson, 72), B Kinghorn; A Hastings, A Price (G Horne, 65); R Sutherland (A Dell, 65), F Brown (S McInally, 46-51 & 56), Z Fagerson (W Nel, 72); S Cummings, J Gray (B Toolis, 72); J Ritchie, H Watson, N Haining (C Du Preez, 72).
Mathieu Raynal (France).