If I was asked to describe Ireland’s performance against Scotland in one word, it would be efficient.
It was always going to be hard to replicate the quality of the All Blacks performance but the big challenge for this squad is to find a base level where they can operate from on a regular basis. That will give them the confidence to perform and a platform to improve from when they come up against the better teams.
Let’s face it, Scotland are an average side and face Italy in Rome on February 22 for the wooden spoon. Their interim coach Scott Johnson has the escape clause that Vern Cotter takes over when he finishes his contract with Clermont in June.
Johnson will move upstairs to a High Performance manager’s role with the SRU as they have decided their best plan for success is to bring in young South African players and get them to qualify for the national team under the three-year residency rule. This philosophy is still in its infancy but the short-term future looks bleak.
Having spoken to some Scottish players I know they are not over the moon about the plan and Edinburgh captain and Scottish scrum half Greg Laidlaw has been openly critical of his union’s actions.
Despite a bright opening period when they dominated possession, the lack of try-scoring ability evident under Andy Robinson was plain to see. The early withdrawal of their Lions wing Sean Maitland after he was knocked out contesting a Conor Murray box kick robbed them of their only X factor player.
Ireland will be happy with the three try to nil scoreline and concession of just seven penalties, which is incredibly low. In camp this week they will be hoping to build the same relationship with Wayne Barnes against Wales on Saturday.
The display had a clear imprint of Joe Schmidt’s coaching philosophy. Ireland played with a well-organised attacking shape and there was real detail in the technical areas of the ruck, with the ball carrier working really hard to recoil back after the tackle to present Conor Murray with clean ball. That allowed the pass to another Irish runner flat on the gainline and kept the momentum up when we had possession.
Ireland were relentlessly aggressive and despite missing Sean O’Brien’s power and Paul O’Connell’s drive and leadership, they were in a different league to the Scots.
Tactically they mixed things up well at lineout times. They took the ball down and drove it in the areas that could hurt Scotland and went with quick ball off the top between their 22s. The two tries came from lineout drives with Andrew Trimble getting in over at the right-hand corner after the Scots kept Ireland out from a strong maul. The Jamie Heaslip try in the second half was beautifully created and Ireland’s new forwards coach John Plumtree must take great credit for how well he has drilled the Irish pack.
The big thing the non-Leinster players have spoken about Schmidt is his attention to detail and how he expects every player to have their homework done on their own plays and the opposition’s. It was interesting to hear Dan Touhy say post-match that he was very comfortable coming into the side at the last minute because he knew exactly what was expected of him.
However Joe will have been frustrated with the unforced errors we made and we were particularly vulnerable to rucks in the wider channels. Schmidt gives his players the licence to play with width but they know that comes with a responsibility to retain possession. Wales tend to counter-ruck aggressively in the same areas so it’s vital we work on this during training this week.
There has been lots of talk about the fact that we have a day less preparation time but all our players are used to this from their provinces, and we have the luxury of being at home, which makes up for the inconvenience.
I’m told Ireland used the first week of camp to have a look at the Welsh attack and defence, which shows how confident they were of beating Scotland. They knew the Welsh game would be the pivotal match of this competition.
That’s why I really fancy Ireland to beat Wales this weekend. Historically the team that contributes most players to the Lions struggles in the following Six Nations and the Welsh players looked fatigued against Italy in Cardiff on Saturday. Also I think the Irish Lions that toured Australia will have learned a lot about Gatland’s game plan and mindset, and they can use that to their advantage.
Wales and Gatland have a very simple philosophy in attack. They play the same way until they get to the touchline where they just turn around and do the same thing again. The reason they have been successful with this tactic is that it tends to force penalties and they have one of the world’s best kickers in Leigh Halfpenny. They also have a hugely impressive physical backline, with Jamie Roberts, Scott Williams, George North and Alex Cuthburt bigger than most forwards.
However their scrum wasn’t good against the Italians and I thought Ireland’s scrum didn’t win the penalties it deserved against the Scots. That’s why we must really go after the Welsh in this area. If we can pressurise Scarlets out-half Rhys Priestland, who wasn’t impressive having won the battle with Dan Biggar to start at 10, we can unsettle Wales.
Whether we go with Marshall or Darcy as O’Driscoll’s centre partner we must not give an inch to Roberts or Williams when they look to create targets for Hibbard and Folatau to carry around the corner. It’s very hard to choke tackle against physically bigger men so expect a lot of chop tackles with the outside defender varying between not contesting, creating a longer defensive line for the next phase and barging the Welsh ruck.
Mike Phillips is a class act but he is coming off a poor Lions tour and a very average Top 14 season, where he was sacked by Bayonne. Our pack need to get to him and make his afternoon hell because if he is allowed the time to dictate the play, then we will be in trouble.
Despite the Welsh players always playing better in the red jersey than they have for their regions, the current disarray in the domestic game cannot be helping them. With O’Connell likely to be fit and the balance Ireland have in the back row with O’Mahony, Heaslip and Henry on form, added to the Schmidt game plan and a raucous Aviva Stadium, I am confident we will beat Wales for the second year in a row and put ourselves in a really good position for a championship assault.
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