Job done but Schmidt says still room for improvement
Paul O’Connell’s return sure to galvanise Ireland in advance of pivotal Wales test
A “relieved” Joe Schmidt would certainly have settled for this at 8am yesterday morning after his captain Paul O’Connell had come down with a chest infection. Ultimately, it may be no bad thing, for if O’Connell was to miss one match this was the one.
It also means O’Connell has been rested for the pivotal visit of the Welsh next Saturday, and Schmidt will have been grateful for the opportunity to haul off eight of his guaranteed starters next week between the 64th and 73rd minutes. He also reported a clean bill of health for the six-day turnaround.
Conceivably the team could be further refreshed, for Schmidt and co will assuredly look at restoring Gordon D’Arcy, while there are options on the wing too presuming Luke Fitzgerald recovers from his hip flexor problem, and Fergus McFadden had another seven minutes or so on the pitch.
That said, Andrew Trimble and Dave Kearney did little wrong and plenty right, not least in their productive chasing of kicks.
All in all it would be churlish to criticise Ireland’s first hit-out, while not going overboard given that sterner, more defining tests await – starting next Saturday. Ireland will assuredly have to start better, and the presence of the Welsh will ramp up the sense of occasion.
Ireland v Scotland highlights
With that game in mind, Schmidt admitted Ireland could have done without the heavy defensive workload of a first-half in which they had 41 per cent of the ball, before improving their carrying, clearing out and ball retention in the second period.
“In the second half I think we played a pretty simple structure. We decided we could keep the ball and win collisions. It was pretty simple stuff. Just because we felt that they had to chase the game, we could put some pressure on them if we kept the ball and they’d transgressed or we’d put pressure on them to the point where we could get over the line. It ended up being a mix of both.”
“Gats has known me for a long time and I’m pretty sure he’ll know what to expect. He’s coached against Ireland and he coached Ireland so I think he’ll know what to expect.”
“Last year they were slow starters and they came through and beat everyone else having lost at home in the first round. I have no doubt they’ll pick themselves up, they’re too good not to. Across the board they’re stacked with talent, size and speed. At the same time we have got to believe that we are formidable enough at the Aviva and we’ll be very keen to demonstrate that.”
Called into the team at 8am as a replacement for the stricken O’Connell, Dan Tuohy acquitted himself very well, not least on the Scottish throw in, where his reading of Ross Ford’s laboured throwing and the lifting of Mike Ross and co enabled him to nick a couple of Scottish lineouts, with the superb Peter O’Mahony taking another.
“One of the things you’ve got to do is demonstrate faith in the players,” said Schmidt. “I would be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned about who we lost, because he is a talismanic player, but I wasn’t concerned with who we had to put in. So I was relatively comfortable with that decision.”
While Ireland’s set-pieces and driving maul were strong, captain for the day Jamie Heaslip admitted Ireland had issues at the breakdown. “They disrupted a lot of our ball in the wide channels; a lot of our rucks they just barged us and I know I got caught high on one which I’m not happy with.”
“They put a lot of pressure on our own ruck ball, slowed a lot of it down which, as a pack and a 15, we’re going to have to be a lot more accurate . . .”
Ireland had other issues too, not least a less than exceptional potency from their strike moves, normally a strength of teams coached by Joe Schmidt and featuring a core of Leinster players, especially Johnny Sexton and Brian O’Driscoll. One scrum move inside halfway in the first-half comes to mind, when the ball was shifted to O’Driscoll under pressure and he was forced to pass blind and loosely to Andrew Trimble. There wasn’t much in the way of offloads (six in total) either.
There will be an argument for recalling Gordon D’Arcy next week and reuniting him with O’Driscoll as once again the presence of Luke Marshall seemed to make the Irish defence more ragged.
When the Scots used the full width of the pitch in going from left to right there were gaps which a better midfield attack – ie Jamie Roberts and Scott Williams or Jonathan Davies – might have exploited. Tellingly, O’Driscoll’s influence on the game was significant, though almost all of it defensively, as he had to make 14 tackles.
Highlighting one “smashing turnover tackle,” Schmidt said of Marshall: “He’s a physical kid and he’s left us with a tough decision either way.” On the day he became Ireland’s most capped player, Schmidt enthused about O’Driscoll’s defending while adding: “I think by his own standards there were a couple of loose passes, and he’ll look to tidy that up.” But he countered this by suggesting O’Driscoll is sure to benefit from the run-out.
So too will Ireland, but then so too will Wales.