If Joe Schmidt was anxious in the build-up to his first ever Six Nations encounter as head coach, the close fought nature of the opening two fixtures on Saturday would have done little to ease his nerves in the hours before taking on Scotland.
This is going to be a highly competitive championship, with France up for the fight, England impressive in defeat in Paris, Italy dogged, determined and well organised once again under Jacques Brunel, while reigning champions Wales will only get better, starting next Saturday in Dublin.
With the bar set by that highly entertaining clash at the Stade de France, Ireland had to hit the ground running yesterday. They weren’t helped in that respect when losing inspirational captain Paul O’Connell to a bad chest infection, diagnosed at 4am on Sunday morning by team doctor Eanna Falvey. Given that Schmidt also lost Luke Fitzgerald and Eoin Reddan from his match day squad and Gordon D’Arcy was also struck by illness during the week, the new coach must have felt the gods were conspiring against him.
In the circumstances therefore, Schmidt has every reason to be happy with a winning margin of 22 points, a differential sufficient to see Ireland top the Six Nations table after the opening weekend.
Of equal importance was the luxury of being able to replace half of his pack by introducing debutant Marty Moore, Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin and Tommy O’Donnell on 64 minutes with a view to limiting the effect of that six day turnaround before Wales come calling on Saturday.
As expected, Scotland were dogged and awkward to manage at the breakdown in the opening half and were always likely to make life difficult for Ireland. They displayed more eagerness to move the ball than we might have expected but, in truth, with the honourable exception of Stuart Hogg, Scotland had nothing to offer in attack.
It didn’t help the visitors that Ireland’s structure and organisation in defence was exemplary and they were more than happy to let Scotland have the 50/50 ball in the knowledge that they lacked the creative ability to do anything with it. That was clear for all to see when in quick succession, ten minutes into the second half, both Greig Laidlaw and Duncan Taylor put in two aimless kicks after Ireland had driven them backwards with a succession of power tackles, the attacking equivalent of raising the white flag.
The one thing Scotland were expected to bring to the table was a highly competitive lineout and even took the liberty of leaving the towering Richie Gray on the bench. That backfired big time, losing 50% of their throws. In this respect Dan Touhy, a late inclusion for O’Connell, was supreme. He accounted for four lineout turnovers himself and clearly had his homework done on the Scots despite the fact that he expected to start this game from the bench.
The other major plus was the Irish scrum, with Cian Healy making mincemeat of Scottish tight head Moray Low. Healy is a phenomenon. The new scrum engagement suits his explosive power to a tee but it’s his acceleration in broken play that sets him apart. It is the equivalent of having an additional back rower on the pitch.
In the absence of Sean O’Brien, that is no bad thing, but in truth such was the impact and performance of Peter O’Mahony and Chris Henry at the breakdown, Ireland were so well served in that department. Jamie Heaslip also had a highly influential game and was really powerful on the ball.
The biggest plus for Ireland, in the opening half especially, was their discipline and patience when Scotland were still competitive. The visitors counter-rucked magnificently to generate a number of valuable turnovers and looked good to adhere to the target set by their interim coach Scott Johnson to frustrate Ireland for 50 minutes before springing influential impact players off the bench such as Gray, Johnnie Beattie and Chris Cusiter.
Schmidt knew what was coming and the message in the Irish dressing at half-time was clear. It was time to pick up the pace and intensity of the game and take Scotland out of their comfort zone. Where once they kicked, Ireland were now taking quick tap free-kicks with Heaslip leading the charge and Scotland looked all at sea.
The stand in captain was denied what would have been an outstanding score after Sexton shook off the shackles that have hindered his attacking game in French domestic rugby to set up a great opportunity for Heaslip with a scintillating break, leaving four Scottish defenders in his wake.
Only Heaslip’s front studs prevented what would have been a brilliant try. Undaunted, Ireland showed great maturity by stealing the subsequent Scottish line out once again, leading to a crucial try for Andrew Trimble.
On the evidence of the opening round of action, there will be a realisation within the Irish squad that Scotland could well be the worst side in the tournament and that this win, satisfying as it was, is no more than a box ticked with bigger challenges to come.
That starts next Saturday against a Welsh side who played well within themselves in their opener in Cardiff against an Italian side that looked far more rounded than Scotland.
Schmidt has a few issues to address this week and will pick a team geared specifically towards dealing with the challenge Wales bring to the table. Jamie Roberts was their most influential player on Saturday and Schmidt may well decide that may require the experience and defensive nous Gordon D’Arcy offers.
That would be a tough call on Luke Marshall, given his performance yesterday, but as Schmidt has shown on countless occasions with Leinster, he is not slow to rotate players in certain positions when a specific strength of the opposition needs to be curbed.
Another area he may look at is tight head prop, depending on whether Gethin Jenkins recovers in time from his latest injury to start in Dublin. Paul James was very poor for Wales at loose head and that might tempt Schmidt to consider the merits of starting Marty Moore this time out ahead of Mike Ross.
The optimism that accompanied Ireland into this championship appears well founded but we’ll all be that bit wiser and better informed once the Welsh challenge has been dealt with next weekend.
Six Nations: Fixtures and results
31st: U20 Six Nations: Ireland 34 Scotland 7.
31st: Women’s Six Nations: Ireland 59 Scotland 0.
1st: RBS Six Nations: Wales 23 Italy 15, France 26 England 24, Ireland 28 Scotland 6.
7th: Club International: Ireland Clubs v Scotland Clubs, Temple Hill.
7th: U20 Six Nations: Ireland v Wales, Dubarry Park, 7.35pm.
7th: Women’s Six Nations: Ireland v Wales, Ashbourne RFC, 7.30pm.
8th: RBS Six Nations: Ireland v Wales, Aviva Stadium, 230pm (W Barnes, England).
8th: RBS Six Nations: Scotland v England, Murrayfield, 5pm (J Garces, France).
9th: RBS Six Nations: France v Italy, Stade de France, 3pm (J Peyper, South Africa).
21st: Club International: England Counties v Ireland Clubs, Northern Echo Arena, Darlington.
21st: RBS Six Nations: Wales v France, Millennium Stadium, 8pm, (A Rolland, Ireland).
22nd: RBS Six Nations: Italy v Scotland, Stadio Olimpico, 130pm, (S Walsh, Australia).
22nd: RBS Six Nations: England v Ireland, Twickenham, 4pm, (C Joubert, South Africa).
22nd: U20 Six Nations: England v Ireland, Franklin Gardens, Northampton, 6.15pm.
22nd: Women’s Six Nations: England v Ireland, Twickenham, 6.30pm.
7th: U20 Six Nations: Ireland v Italy, Dubarry Park, 7.05pm.
8th: Women’s Six Nations: Ireland v Italy, Aviva Stadium, time tbc.
8th: RBS Six Nations: Ireland v Italy, Aviva Stadium, 2.30pm (N Owens, Wales).
8th: RBS Six Nations: Scotland v France, Murrayfield, 5pm (C Pollock, New Zealand).
9th: RBS Six Nations: England v Wales, Twickenham, 3pm (R Poite, France).
14th: U20 Six Nations: France v Ireland, Stade Maurice Trélut, Tarbes. 7.55pm.
14th: Women’s Six Nations: France v Ireland, Stade du Hameau, 5.45pm.
15th: RBS Six Nations: Italy v England, Stadio Olimpico, 12.30 pm (P Gauzere, France).
15th: RBS Six Nations: Wales v Scotland, Millennium Stadium, 2.45pm (J Garces, France).
15th: RBS Six Nations: France v Ireland, Stade de France, 6pm (S Walsh, Australia).
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved