Scotland wilt as Schmidt’s men blossom

Johnny Sexton and Jamie Heaslip help Ireland uproot their Celtic cousins

Rob Kearney scores his try, Ireland’s third. Photograph: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Rob Kearney scores his try, Ireland’s third. Photograph: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Mon, Feb 3, 2014, 01:00

It was Celtic springtime in Dublin, at least for a day, and the Irish rugby team caught the mood eventually to dance rings around their Scottish cousins and snatch an early lead in this year’s Six Nations championship.

Mind you, in benign conditions, they made their own heavy weather for a while.

It was symptomatic of the earlier exchanges in yesterday’s game that a first attempted airing of The Fields of Athenry was quickly abandoned, as if due to water-logging.

For half an hour and more, the Flower of Scotland was the only thing that looked liked growing on the Aviva Stadium’s immaculate pitch. Then the green-fingered Johnny Sexton worked some magic involving that well-known Irish perennial, the Jamie Heaslip.

This seemed to be the signal for the whole team to blossom.

Tries by Andrew Trimble, Heaslip and Rob Kearney made it 28-6 in the end, enough to put Ireland on dry ground at the top of the Six Nations table, via points difference from Wales and France. Even so, it took 74 minutes before the aforementioned Fields were sufficiently drained for a full chorus.

The day was a mixed one for two of the greats of Irish rugby. Brian O’Driscoll’s 129th international appearance made him Ireland’s most capped player ever.

By contrast, Paul O’Connell had been ruled out overnight with a chest infection, propelling Ulster lock Dan Tuohy into the number five shirt and handing Heaslip the captaincy.

Slow start
Maybe the slow start was understandable, given O’Connell’s loss. In any case, Heaslip went on to be man of the match.

And the eventual ease of the victory will have done nothing to dampen confidence about the embryonic Joe Schmidt era.

The New Zealand-born coach has survived his first Six Nations game unscathed, as apparently did all of his players. His next challenge is to manage the surge of optimism – Step We Gaily on We Go – comes with a first round win over the neighbours.

Male-voice choir
Another Celtic derby now looms. In fact, it looked as if the Welsh had turned up a week early at Lansdowne when a male-voice choir in red jackets supplied pre-match entertainment. On closer inspection, it turned out to be Cavan Rugby club.

But the Welsh were an ominous presence throughout, especially when Schmidt emptied his entire subs bench late on to rest key players ahead of the six-day turnaround and a game that, like Punxsutawney Phil, could define the spring.