It says much about the strange nature of this year’s RBS 6 Nations championship that Ireland arrive at this Saturday’s finale against England wondering what might have been.
A week ago, as Declan Kidney’s battered and bruised squad stared miserably into their half-empty glasses assessing a draw with France as the one that not just got away but cost them the services of Paul O’Connell and Conor Murray, Ireland appeared to be running out of leaders. They looked in danger of falling apart under the sheer physical toll of playing four high-intensity Test matches in successive weekends.
Yet they will travel to London this weekend for the last of these four Herculean trials with a spring in their step, and rightly so, following this important victory over Scotland.
Such are the narrow margins in sport that the upcoming date with England could easily have had a Grand Slam riding on it. Instead, world ranking points and pride are what’s left following the late defeat to Wales in Dublin on the opening day and the sloppiness that cost them a famous victory in Paris.
Scotland may be a poor side and this was not a perfect performance from Ireland but it ticked a lot of boxes and answered several questions about the character and leadership in a group of players missing the vast experience two talismanic Lions captains in Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell.
There was no better example of that than when Rory Best, the third Irish captain in five Tests, stepped up to the plate with a big and brave call in the 13th minute. His side were trailing 0-6 after two Greig Laidlaw penalties, the second stemmed from Best having overthrown his first lineout.
Yet when Ireland won a penalty in very reachable goal-kicking territory for Jonny Sexton, the captain instructed his fly-half to go for the corner and backed himself to land his lineout arrow. Best did just that, finding his new lineout leader and middle jumper Donnacha Ryan and then putting the tin hat on it by finishing off a well-worked move also involving Donncha O’Callaghan and Peter O’Mahony for Ireland’s opening try. Duly converted by Sexton, the smash and grab wiped out Scotland’s promising start in one fell swoop. And that was leadership.
Kidney recognised the effort and after a limited Scotland side fell further behind following an exchange of penalties Eoin Reddan struck for an opportunistic five-pointer.
They fought back thanks to an excellent solo try from lock Richie Gray, who brushed aside Reddan, left Tommy Bowe for dust and caught full-back Rob Kearney in two minds. Ireland, though, ticked another box in the character test by not letting that 38th-minute score bring the half to its effective end and the determination was rewarded with an Andrew Trimble try on the stroke of half-time that kept the Scots at arm’s length at 22-14 for the rest of the game before a Sexton penalty and converted Fergus McFadden try sealed the deal late on.
With England hovering into view next weekend, Kidney was gratified as much by the mindset as the outcome when asked what pleased him most.
“It wasn’t so much today as all week,” he said. “What pleased the most today was the result. What pleased the most all week is that they’ve had a bit of adversity, they’ve dealt with it really well and they’re a credit to themselves the way they’ve dealt with it.
“We know we have another huge task next week. It’s the first time ever I think we’ve had four of these matches on the trot but we’re enjoying one another’s company and let’s work on it and long may it continue just the way it happened today.
“But it will be a huge task. You don’t just rock up at Twickenham and say ‘that was great lads, we’ll do the same again’. You have to prepare properly and diligently for it and so that’s why we have to knuckle down and do that.”
Just imagine what might have been. Ireland go into the final game having scored 13 tries, four more than champions-elect Wales and with a better points difference too. The adversity of which Kidney speaks will also apply to the failure of linesman Dave Pearson to suggest the dismissal rather than the sin-binning of Wales lock Bradley Davies on that opening afternoon.
IRELAND: R Kearney; T Bowe, K Earls, G D’Arcy, A Trimble; J Sexton, E Reddan; C Healy, R Best (capt), M Ross; D O’Callaghan, D Ryan; S Ferris, P O’Mahony, J Heaslip.
Replacements: T Court for Healy (51-58, blood), R O’Gara for D’Arcy (54), T O’Leary for Reddan (54), S Jennings for O’Mahony (62), F McFadden for Kearney (73), T Court for Ross (78), M McCarthy for O’Callaghan (78).
SCOTLAND: S Hogg; L Jones, M Evans, G Morrison, S Lamont; G Laidlaw, M Blair; A Jacobsen, R Ford (capt), G Cross; R Gray, J Hamilton; J Barclay, R Rennie, D Denton.
Replacements: E Murray for Cross (46), C Cusiter for Blair (50), R Jackson for Laidlaw (56), A Kellock for Hamilton (59), R Vernon for Rennie (59), M Scott for Jones (62).
Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand).
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