Ireland returned to winning ways in this Autumn Nations Cup campaign but after a disappointing defeat at Twickenham the previous weekend this was hardly the style of victory to raise supporters’ spirits.
Two first-half tries from Billy Burns and Hugo Keenan gave promise of an instant rebound from the woes inflicted by England eight days earlier as Ireland returned to Aviva Stadium. Indeed, at times it was a performance as bright as the fluorescent yellow on their new black alternate kit, with Ireland taking a 20-7 lead into half-time.
Yet they were made to work hard by a resilient Georgia side who kept them tryless in the second half and showed more going forward in this final group game than in their defeats by England and Wales.
Ireland were themselves looking to right some of the wrongs made in their own defeat to the English when the home side’s dominant performance was not reflected in the 18-7 scoreline.
Head coach Andy Farrell had continued his adventurous selection policy in these November internationals and among his changes from the side beaten the previous weekend was a first Test start for fly-half Burns. It was Burns who got Ireland up and running after just five minutes with his first international try, combining brilliantly with Chris Farrell to collect the outside centre’s out-the-back pass on the overlap to score next to the posts, the Ireland 10 converting his own score and adding a penalty soon after to open up a 10-0 lead.
Georgia were not prepared to lie down, though, and they opened up Ireland on 17 minutes, a deft inside pass from full-back Matiashvili to centre Georgi Kveseladze wrong-footing the home defence on halfway. Having created the hole, Kveseladze made the most of his opportunity, selling full-back Jacob Stockdale a dummy and then stepping Burns before scoring under the posts, a magnificent try and Georgia’s first points in three matches this month.
Ireland were not thrown off course, however, and after Burns slotted a 23rd-minute penalty, they did some attacking of their own after Keenan collected a Conor Murray box kick. It took time and Ireland were initially held up over the line off a driving maul that Rob Herring could not quite ground but off a five-metre scrum, Stockdale sent out a long pass to the right wing where Keenan was waiting unattended to run in Ireland’s second try. Burns’ conversion made it 20-7 after 34 minutes and it stayed that way to half-time.
If Ireland had ambitions to kick on from there and rack up a score in the second half they were mistaken. All that accrued was a penalty for either side shortly after the interval, Ross Byrne having replaced the injured Burns. Thereafter, Ireland once again and for the second week running failed to find a way through a stubborn defence.
It was a frustrating watch, made worse by the stream of replacements from both benches and lifted only by the introduction of an Ireland debutant, Munster back Shane Daly coming on in the 63rd minute to become head coach Farrell’s 10th new cap of his first year in charge.
Ireland kept pressing for their first try of the half but were held up again from close range after another driving maul from a five-metre lineout. It was the closest they came to breaking the stalemate, a Georgian ruck penalty with the clock past 80 minutes won close to their line and celebrated as if it was a try. The reality was that it was an Ireland win but it was an awfully hard watch.
J Stockdale; H Keenan, C Farrell, S McCloskey, K Earls (S Daly, 63); B Burns (R Byrne, 45), C Murray (K Marmion, 56); F Bealham (C Healy, 56), R Herring, A Porter (John Ryan, h-t); I Henderson, James Ryan - captain (Q Roux, 61); T Beirne (P O’Mahony, 61), W Connors (D Heffernan - HIA, 68), CJ Stander.
S Matiashvili; A Tabutsadze, G Kveseladze, M Sharikadze - captain (D Niniashvili, 66), T Mchedlidze (D Tapladze, 64); T Abzhandadze, V Lobzhanidze (M Alania, 74); M Nariashvili (L Kaulashvili, 49), S Mamukashvili (G Chkoidze, 10-18 & 64), B Gigashvili (G Melikidze, 70); N Tcheishvili (G Javakhia, 62), L Jaiani; B Saginadze, T Jalagonia, B Gorgadze (M Gachechiladze, 63).
Mathieu Raynal (France)