A fine performance but error count still too high
RUGBY ANALYST: Scotland’s ineptitude shouldn’t hide the fact that Ireland made too many mistakes
AFTER 30 minutes or so of Saturday’s game I developed a thought bubble. I had expected and even wanted so much from this Scottish side that I was genuinely excited by the prospect of seeing Richie Gray and his colleagues in full flight. They had played some great rugby but the errors were killing them.
They had lost their three opening matches and I had convinced myself that those results were down to very costly and dumb errors. It was quite obvious that there is much talent in the Scottish outfit but on 30 minutes I concluded that they are no use. Andy Robinson, in total acceptance, announced post-match how the “errors were not good enough at this level”. I’m afraid much of what Scotland created was not good enough at any level. Where does he go from here?
Consequently it is difficult to judge Ireland’s performance. They were extremely clinical, even ruthless, in maximising Scottish ineptitude and considering the injuries, especially within the leadership circle, it was a fine performance. But are we in danger of fooling ourselves into a false sense of security? Yes and no. The scrum battled throughout as did the lineout, which is no mean feat considering the changes in personnel.
There were individuals who stepped up such as Cian Healy and of course there were four tries and three cracking conversions.
There were, however, too many penalties and turnovers conceded, there were lost lineouts (understandable) and many box kicks and some of the passing was behind the shoulder and caused the receiver to check his run and stunt the budding attack. Ireland conceded huge possession stakes to Scotland but remained patient in defence waiting for their errors, and it was great to see Tomás O’Leary back, but could Isaac Boss or even Paul Marshall be worth a look?
Back to the 30th minute where Scotland had their second lineout in the Irish corner from a penalty and sensing an opportunity went for the classic set up, hitting Jim Hamilton in the middle. The ball was fed back, where the maul was in good shape, and crucially with great attacking body height. As the maul inched forward you could actually see it disintegrate under Irish pressure and the inevitable happened; two feet from the Irish try line it simply ran out of steam and died. Yes the Irish had infringed, but in the classic team skill, Scotland failed.
This was made all the more galling as Ireland 17 minutes earlier had their lineout on the Scottish line. Like Scotland they found the middle with Donnacha Ryan coming forward to receive. Ireland didn’t engage, where Donncha O’Callaghan took from Ryan, spinning touchside to Peter O’Mahony and sending Rory Best crashing over. And what a conversion from Jonathan Sexton!
I wonder how often scrumhalf Mike Blair practised defending his line in the five-metre channel. It is not good enough that team tactics place a smaller, less competent, man in that channel and explain away a five-pointer “sure he had no chance”. If that be true then don’t put him there.
Whatever way Scotland want to spin their decision to kick three points after their failed assault on the Irish line is fine by me. Robinson claimed it was his call, but when you defend your line as Ireland did and the opposition ‘flip flop’ their mind and go for a three-pointer you know they are a spent force.
The energy derived from this was evident in the next phase and cements Scotland’s status. Another fine kick-off from Sexton was butchered by the Scots (ala Wales) and referee Chris Pollock penalised the instinctive offside Scot and off Jamie Heaslip goes (good call?). Healy added more yards until Eoin Reddan dotted down for yet another seven-pointer. I hung my head and could only imagine what the Scottish travelling support could be thinking.
Thankfully a glimmer of light arrived through the towering Gray taking a pop off the very meek and tactically naive Greig Laidlaw at outhalf. Gray did the rest by barging over Reddan and slipping inside the sensational Rob Kearney a little too easily. He was still accelerating as he crossed the try line.
Last Friday I asked about Ireland’s potential tactics to combat Scotland. What were Scotland’s? One of which should certainly have been “stay away from Stephen Ferris”. Tackling is one thing which he clearly very much enjoys but the destruction and timing of his hits are amazing. His best hit? All of them were bone shuddering, where at times his technique is overridden by sheer upper body strength combined with lower body power. I especially liked his hit on Sean Lamont on 52 minutes and 20 seconds; beautiful.
What of his backrow colleagues? Peter O’Mahony has no issues with international rugby and will spend much time in the arena. But what number jersey will he wear? Early in this season when watching him for the first time it was obvious how technically proficient he was around the ball. He did, however, spend much time away from the ball/action.
On Saturday there were vast chunks of time where he was at the opposite side of the pitch, although filling a role, but he is far too impressive around the breakdown and is a wasted resource to be staying out wide. A minute into the second half Keith Earls was fighting hard in the depths of a ruck before O’Mahony’s breakdown instincts spotted an opportunity and he dived in to steal a cracking turnover; great aggression, great instinct and great technique; more please which he did on Chris Cusiter on 54 minutes.
I’m sure he’ll have learned much from the starting slot but especially how to defend the opposite number eight pick and go. Deep inside their 22 on the 45th minute David Denton picked off a Scottish scrum and was gone slipping past O’Mahony on the openside flank, bearing down on the Irish midfield and riding tackles at will.
Less than a minute later Scotland had a scrum on the half-way line and this time O’Mahony was very aware of the Denton threat so much so that he detached into no man’s land but Pollock spotted him; penalty!
The stat nerds compiling the error count will focus on the overt but it is the covert errors that are really killing Scotland, such as the failure to score seven points off the lineout mentioned earlier and all the forward passes or the spilled balls. After 50 minutes the count stood four-all in errors but when their outhalf fails to understand that the value of momentum and pressure combined should bring points and kicks the ball away, as he did when affording Kearney another chance of running out resulting in Tommy Bowes’s “try” that wasn’t, you know you’re in trouble.
It was a great win under difficult circumstances but my head will remain hung for quite a while in sympathy for Scotland.