Gerry Thornley: Scotland defeat hard to take but no need to panic

The glow from the historic treble over the southern hemisphere giants has not lasted

Ireland player Jamie Heaslip shows his frustration after Saturday’s loss to  Scotland. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

Ireland player Jamie Heaslip shows his frustration after Saturday’s loss to Scotland. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

 

A wintry Monday did little to alleviate the huge sense of disappointment which accompanied Saturday’s anti-climactic start to Ireland’s Six Nations campaign in Edinburgh. Never has an Irish team gone into the old tournament with an historic treble over the three southern hemisphere giants since its last running. History beckoned, or at any rate opportunity knocked.

For players like Rory Best (34), Devin Toner (30), Jamie Heaslip (33), Rob Kearney (30) and Johnny Sexton (30) there will not be too many more opportunities like this one. For starters, it will be another two years before a historically more favourable biennial itinerary, which has France and England coming to Dublin, comes into view again.

Had this Irish team matched the physical and mental sharpness from the kick-off which they demonstrated in those six meetings with South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, had they defended with the same line speed and width in the second-half from the off and converted more of their 12 line breaks into scores, had their line-out and maul been more accurate, they would quite possible have gone into the first of those home games against France with 10 points.

As it is, the most they can accumulate over the opening two rounds is now six points which, of course, is not the end of the world. Nor did England or France look like world beaters in their opener at Twickenham, any more than Wales did in an often grim encounter with Italy.

Dangerous French

France though, look more dangerous than at any point in the four years under Phillipe Saint Andre. Guy Noves has amalgamated the power of their big forward rumblers, including a more slimmed-down and mobile Louis Picamoles, with pace, more width and ambition, with the offloading game he favoured at Toulouse.

That said, England and Wales are traditionally slow starters, and will assuredly improve. Not only were England without the Vunipola brothers to get them over the gain line, but players such as Joe Marlar and Dylan Hartley were very ring rusty.

Wales are, usually, a durable tournament side, who generally grow stronger as World Cups and Six Nations progress. At least England and Wales will have to take points off each other this Saturday, and were France to do the same to Scotland on Sunday, the table could look a good deal healthier from an Irish perspective presuming they do their stuff in Rome.

Presumably, Ireland will improve too, not least as so much of the flaws in Murrayfield were avoidable and fixable. When Ireland have their defensive review today, they will already know where the fault lines lay in conceding the first two tries to Stuart Hogg.

For the first, as highlighted by Shane Horgan on RTÉ from the camera angle behind the Irish posts, six players were initially lured to a blindside where there was only one Scottish player, and the scramble across the pitch was too late to help the hopelessly isolated Garry Ringrose. The poor lad was left with three attackers and a potential crosskick to defend.

For the second, Robbie Henshaw tackled Josh Strauss when he trucked up line-out ball, and Ringrose briefly looked for a poach before rejoining the defensive line, but without the Scottish ruck ball being delayed. With Jack McGrath as the pillar, Ringrose was next in the defensive line, with Sean O’Brien, Iain Henderson, Paddy Jackson and Keith Earls outside, and Rob Kearney at the back.

Belated neutering

But because they were so narrow a skip one pass by Finn Russell to Huw Jones, and his transfer to Hogg effectively afforded the full-back a two-on-one, which he duly translated into his try. For the second-half, as Vern Cotter noted, the Irish defence pushed up harder and cut off Hogg and go out wide, thereby neutering that threat.

It’s easy to forget that this was only Henshaw’s third Six Nations campaign, yet at 23 and with 24 caps he was the most experienced member of the 10-12-13 combination, outside Paddy Jackson and inside Garry Ringrose. That duo went into the game with 23 caps, as against the 80 caps which the missing Johnny Sexton and Jared Payne possess.

Sexton is no shrinking violet when it comes to communicating with those around him, and Payne – who was effectively ruled out of the remainder of the tournament yesterday by manager Paul Dean – is oft cited as the vocal, defensive linchpin of the team.

And as Henshaw has conceded, the young 10-12-13 trio are still finding their voice as well as their feet at this level. It’s also worth remembering that this was not only Ringrose’s Six Nations debut, but only his second test start at 13, and while his midfield partnership with Henshaw is only beginning to blossom at Leinster of late, this was still their first test start together.

Different beast

It also possibly didn’t help Ringrose that he was hit hard and fractionally late in the first minute. Welcome to the Six Nations. With its historic and internecine rivalries such as last Saturday’s 133rd meeting between these celtic rivals, it’s a different beast altogether from summer tours and November windows.

Yet when all is said and done, Ireland managed to subdue a buoyant home side with momentum to overturn a 16-point deficit, and were not that far away – think of Mark Bennett’s unpunished slap down and John Barclay dislodging the ball from Ultan Dillane – from pulling four or even eight points clear.

Changes will be minimal. Donnacha Ryan, perhaps Andrew Trimble and maybe Finlay Bealham will return in some guise, and at a push Peter O’Mahony and Sexton.

It was an acutely disappointing start to a campaign that could have offered more, but no need to panic or tear up the script just yet.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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