Final flourish leaves Ireland in a better place
Frustrating campaign ends on a high as Schmidt’s side claim third place in table
Keith Earls on his way to scoring his side’s second try during the victory over Scotland at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA
Ireland 35 Scotland 25
Ireland will ruefully wonder what might have been over their five games, but at least they could feel a little better about themselves after signing off their Six Nations with back-to-back home wins. A little like the campaign itself, it was certainly imperfect but another four tries took their tally to 15, the second highest in the table and almost double last year’s tally of eight.
Boosted by last week’s nine tries against Italy, Ireland were again more ruthless than in the opening three matches with visits to their opponents’ 22. They maintained their intensity, not forcing things (or going too wide or taking too many risks) until they returned to the halfway line with tries.
This was especially so when the Scots were twice down to 14 men, during which time Ireland repeatedly went to the corner to score three of their four tries and 19 of their 35 points, all of which originated from lineouts.
The flip side were the cheap points which partially undid a particularly dominant first half – 21-13 was hardly reflective of nearly 80 per cent possession.
True to type, Ireland’s supremacy was founded on their kick-chase game, with Andrew Trimble in particular haranguing Tim Visser, and their typically accurate recycling, everyone from the tight five forwards to Keith Earls out wide.
Front footThe Irish back-row were immense, making over 50 carries between them compared to 22 by their counterparts. No one individual did more to put Ireland on the front foot, both on the scoreboard, and on the pitch, than CJ Stander. One particularly bruising carry blasted John Hardie out of his path and led to Johnny Sexton’s second penalty. Stander’s ball-carrying in the first 20 minutes was off the charts
By the time he took the aerial route to the line, over a cluster of bodies at a ruck on the Scottish line for Ireland’s first try, it was his 12th carry, eight over the gain line, for 28 metres in the first 27 minutes.
Yet Jamie Heaslip’s more sustained efforts over 80 minutes were even more durable. Selfless, clever and accurate in his defensive duties and at ruck time, it’s not often that Heaslip gets to carry the ball 18 times, or makes 32 metres. They were all hard yards too as Heaslip, typically, offered himself for the slow one-off recycles from behind the gain line to truck it up, as well as taking the ball wider out. His offload to O’Donnell when taking a delayed pass from Sexton was a classy attacking read by both men, as was his offload for Devin Toner’s first Test try.
Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton had strong games, the former again plunging from close range for his third try of the campaign, Jared Payne had his usual polished game and Simon Zebo again provided a real threat from full-back.
The flip side was the defensive blips, notably when Stuart Hogg could eye up a mismatch between Mike Ross and Rory Best from Conor Murray’s overcooked box kick. Three more tries conceded here meant nine for the season, treble last season’s tally. Andy Farrell has plenty to work on.
“They were true to themselves,” said Cotter of the Irish side. “They have a very good kicking game, they work your backfield and try to get you into your 22. They are a set phase team. Today they played two phases and then they would sweep back the other way. They are a smart team. I would like to be able to play the whole game with 15 players on the field and see what the result would have been . . .”
As for Schmidt’s importance to Ireland, Cotter said of his good friend: “He’s a top coach and a top bloke. His record speaks for itself. It’s Joe’s decision and I will respect whatever he decides to do. He’s a good man.”
With his first penalty, Sexton overtook David Humphreys as Ireland’s second highest points scorer of all time on the day he also incurred a late yellow card for, of all things, bringing down a maul.
His delicate left-footed chip in behind Tommy Seymour which enabled Keith Earls to mark his 50th cap with his 17th test try was on the proverbial sixpence. The variety of his kicking, running and passing game again oozed class and was central to the supremacy Ireland established for much of first half and then regained after Alex Dunbar’s yellow card for flipping Sexton onto his back with a judo-style clear-out. At 28-20, with the Scots still full of running and belief, that was the pivotal moment of the match.
Incredibly important“The way Johnny marshals the team around him, the way he manages to get the best out of other players is admirable every time he puts the jersey on,” said Schmidt.
“We try to mind him a little bit, but there’s no minding that man. I don’t know if you saw the hit he put in on Billy Vunipola that dislodged the ball, there was no hesitation in doing it from Johnny. When he demands physical effort from players, they are very willing workers for him because of what he puts on the line for them and for the team. . . along with the skill element that he brings to the game, the experience that he brings to the game; they’re incredibly important for us.”
In then discussing the growth of players such as Ian Madigan, Paddy Jackson, Ian Keatley, Jack Carty and Stuart Olding, it was interesting to hear the Irish coach describe Madigan’s impending move to Bordeaux as “unfortunate”.
“We’re not suddenly going to give them the same experience as Johnny’s got, but we hope that we can build that over a period of time,” added Schmidt, but therein lies the rub, for as he added: “It’s just so hard to do it when the next seven Test matches, six of them are against the best three teams in the world. So, it doesn’t allow for a massive amount of experimentation . . ”