Satisfactory start as Ireland lay down an early marker
Improved second-half display proves too much for limited Scotland
Ireland’s Brian O’Driscoll grimaces after receiving a knock to the head during the Six Nations game against Scotland at the Aviva Stadium yesterday. Photo: Eric Luke
Ireland 28 Scotland 6
A satisfactory start for Ireland; no more, no less. Ultimately, once Ireland sorted out the breakdown – where the Scots gave them some grief in the first half – then the difference in skill and quality came through and they pulled away to win by three tries to nil and 22 points, thereby assuming leadership of an embryonic table.
The feel-good factor has to be tempered with the certainty that back-to-back reigning champions, Wales, will pose an altogether different array of problems than a somewhat limited and toothless Scotland, whose attacking game especially isn’t in the same orbit.
For most of the first half and a little bit beyond, Scotland made it tough going for Ireland.
But when the going gets tough and all that, and no-one responded to the challenge more effectively than Peter O’Mahony. His work at the breakdown was the best of any Irish player and along with three turnover penalties and a line-out steal, there was his usual hard carries and tackling.
Indeed, despite missing arguably three first-choice forwards given the absence of Sean O’Brien and Donnacha Ryan as well, Ireland’s set-piece game was very strong. Their two tries either side of half-time – championship minutes – emanated from a lineout against the head and a scrum against the head; the first courtesy of Tuohy the second seemingly a combination of Rory Best and Cian Healy.
Healy and Jamie Heaslip looked in good nick too, with influential games, and Chris Henry defended very strongly.
Aside from his crisp passing, Conor Murray’s value was highlighted with an improved kicking game, especially his long touch finders, and his box kicks were brilliantly chased by Andrew Trimble and Dave Kearney. Behind them, Rob Kearney was excellent, clearly revelling in the freer attacking role afforded him by Schmidt.
Jonny Sexton’s all-round game, a five out of six goal-kicking return and the way he grew into the contest reaffirmed that Ireland have the best outhalf in the championship – and with only Rhys Priestland for a serious rival.
Ireland v Scotland - second half highlights
That Ireland finished up with a 59 per cent share of possession demonstrated how much they dominated the second half, given the Scots had 59 per cent of the first. The tone was set by the visitors going through 11 phases at the very start of the game, taking the ball hard into contact and confident of their ability to recycle the ball, even if they lacked a cutting edge. It didn’t help that Greig Laidlaw hit the outside of the upright with an ensuing 40 -metre penalty.
Admittedly, Ireland’s defence looked a little ragged when it was stretched, Stuart Hogg slicing through the middle on one occasion and linking with Duncan Weir only for Murray to intervene as a sweeping scrum-half, as he does so well, and O’Mahony to engineer the turnover penalty.
Cue Ireland’s kick-chase game. Trimble and Luke Marshall nailing Hogg on receiving a Sexton bomb gave them their first ‘in’ into the game and a 15 metre lineout drive and good pressure by Healy on Moray Low led to the opening penalty by Sexton when Low was penalised for not rolling away.
Ireland were struggling to generate quick ball and sustained phases, much less open up the Scottish defence, although after another Trimble chase, O’Driscoll freed his hands in the tackle but the ball was too low for Henry to gather.
After Laidlaw and Sexton exchanged further penalties there followed Ireland’s and the game’s longeur, during which a combination of Heaslip and Dave Kearney, and then O’Mahony and Murray, forced Dave Denton into touch by the corner flag.
Whereupon Sexton brought the home team and crowd alive with a stunning break from deep past three opponents. His long pass even connected with Heaslip but the covering Max Evans did enough to make the former’s foot brush the touchline as he touched down.
In any event, Tuohy nicked the throw, Healy and Murray charged at the line, and though Tuohy was tackled behind the gain line, the halves and Rob Kearney kept their depth and width for Trimble to score and make it 11-3 at the break.
Although Laidlaw reduced arrears, Ireland began to carry harder and recycle more effectively after O’Mahony had brilliantly reclaimed Sexton’s hanging restart up the middle.
They stretched Scotland on both flanks, went to the corner and from Tuohy’s take the pack quickly formed a long straight maul to drive over the line – Heaslip touching down.
Scotland were briefly rejuvenated by their bench before a Sexton penalty and some oomph from the Irish bench renewed the offensive. A superb defensive read and execution by O’Driscoll turned desperate defence into attack as Jack McGrath charged up field.
The patience, work-rate and skill, typified by Tuohy’s offload to Henry, which followed in the sustained attack resulted in the pick of the tries as Rob Kearney muscled through three tackles with his footwork and strength to mark his 50th cap with a deserved try.
With the replacements eager to impress, and Ireland introducing more of an offloading game than had been evident for much of the day, they pounded the Scots some more and Isaac Boss and Jack McGrath were within inches of the line before Paddy Jackson ill-advisedly opted for a chip into the in-goal area with the clock past the 80- minute mark.
There was no need to go for such an all-or-nothing ploy and the ball bounced on the touch-in-goal line before Dave Kearney adroitly gathered to touch down.
Given the title could yet come down to points difference, that was a rare note of profligacy on an otherwise satisfying opening day.
Scoring sequence: 14 mins: Sexton pen 3-0; 19: Laidlaw pen 3-3; 23: Sexton pen 6-3; 40 (+1): Trimble try 11-3 (half-time 11-3)p; 43: Laidlaw pen 11-6; 47: Heaslip try, Sexton con 18-6; 57: Sexton pen 21-6; 71: Rob Kearney try, Sexton con.
IRELAND: R Kearney (Leinster); A Trimble (Ulster), B O’Driscoll (Leinster), L Marshall (Ulster), D Kearney (Leinster); J Sexton (Racing Metro 92), C Murray (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), M Ross (Leinster), D Toner (Leinster), D Tuohy (Ulster), P O’Mahony (Munster), C Henry (Ulster), J Heaslip (Leinster, capt). Replacements: M Moore (Leinster) for Ross (63 mins), J McGrath (Leinster) for Healy (64 mins), S Cronin (Leinster) for Best (66 mins), T O’Donnell (Munster) for O’Mahony (67 mins), I Boss (Leinster) for Murray, P Jackson (Ulster) for Sexton, F McFadden (Leinster) for O’Driscoll (all 73 mins), I Henderson (Ulster) for Toner (74 mins).
SCOTLAND: S Hogg; S Maitland, A Dunbar, D Taylor, S Lamont; Duncan Weir, G Laidlaw; R Grant, R Ford, M Low, Tim Swinson, J Hamilton, R Wilson, K Brown (capt), D Denton). Replacements: M Evans for Maitland (32 mins), A Dickinson for Grant (53 mins), R Gray for Hamilton, J Beattie for Brown (both 57 mins), M Scott for Taylor (65 mins), G Cross for Low (66 mins), PMacArthur for Ford (68 mins), C Cusiter for Laidlaw (74 mins).
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)..