Gerry Thornley: Ireland have work to do before Scottish showdown
Joe Schmidt frets over defensive frailty against Wales that may be exposed by Scots
After a momentous and riotous day of springtime Six Nations rugby, with the Celts very much to the fore, the table makes for unexpectedly pleasant unexpected reading. Ireland stand alone at the top with the only unbeaten record still standing, five points clear of England.
Potentially, Ireland could clinch the title with a round to spare were they to beat Scotland at home in a fortnight’s time and then England subsequently fail to at least equal Ireland’s match points the same day against France in Paris.
As the only side now capable of achieving the feat, talk of a Grand Slam will now be inevitable, not least with TV3’s Sinead Kissane asking the post-match questions.
However, Joe Schmidt countered that the squad, although they’ll have some away from camp before and after Tuesday’s open session in Lansdowne Road, live in a bubble. Furthermore, all the more so bearing in mind Ireland’s defensive issues out wide after conceding three tries for the second home game running, next up come the flying Scots.
The nature of Scotland’s momentous 25-13 win over England, only the latter’s second defeat in 25 games under Eddie Jones, ramps up the significance of Saturday week’s game.
With Finn Russell putting two iffy performances behind him to pull the strings thrillingly, and Scotland much the more positive team, they were full value for their first Calcutta Cup win in a decade. The Scots will arrive arrive buoyed, having risen to third and knowing a win keeps them in the title race until the last day when they face Italy in Rome.
Schmidt, whose displeasure over conceding three tries was palpable, admitted this was a particular concern with Scotland coming to town.
“It is, obviously with the runners Scotland have – the Stuart Hoggs, the Tommy Seymours, the likes of Sean Maitland, who are very quick athletes,” said Schmidt. “It’s always a concern. I think we helped them [Wales] a little bit. We didn’t stay connected, we had guys doing different things and I think we can repair a lot of that over the next two weeks. It was frustrating against Italy and it was frustrating today, albeit with lots of positives about eight tries and five tries [scored]. What we are creating is keeping us safe from losses, but we’ve got to do better than conceding three tries two weekends in a row.”
On the flip side, Ireland’s five tries were more than they had managed in the previous four Six Nations meetings with Wales combined. Three of them came from the remorseless close-range and close-in pummelling by their forwards and midfield carriers.
Had it not worked, they’d have been accused of being blunt. But there is a real bruising battery of heavyweight carriers in this Irish team, and it was also the end product of some ambitious and nuanced attacking rugby, with Johnny Sexton at its heart.
Schmidt, grateful for a fortnight off, played down Sexton’s “dead glute”, Murray’s leg injury and Keith Earls’s tight calf. He is also likely to have Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson back in the mix for the Scotland game.
Andrew Porter, Dan Leavy and Chris Farrell most probably wouldn’t have been playing were it not for the injuries to Furlong, Sean O’Brien and Robbie Henshaw, whatever about Ryan in the light of Ireland also losing Henderson.
Yet in the absence of these Lions, they were all key figures in this Irish win; so much so that even with Garry Ringrose back in contention it’s inconceivable to see how Farrell could be dropped on this evidence. Indeed, even in the unlikely event of Sean O’Brien returning for Leinster away to the Scarlets this weekend, how could Leavy be jettisoned?
Dogged Wales lived off scraps for the first hour, yet turned them into a loaves-and-fishes return. For several years now, there was been no side better equipped to play catch-up than the Welsh. With no option but to go for it, they skinned Ireland out wide for tries by Aaron Shingler and Steff Evans either side of a crucial penalty by Murray, as he did against the All Blacks in Chicago.
Warren Gatland, in a briefing for Monday papers, rued the “stop-start” nature of the game.
“There was 48 minutes ball in play last week, today we were 32 minutes. We looked at the stats for when we’ve played Ireland, anything over 44 minutes we’ve won the games and anything under 37 or below they’ve won the games.
“But, we scored 27 points and quite conceivably could have scored in the last play of the game. If Stockdale doesn’t get the intercept, if we’d given the pass out the back - we potentially score there,” he said.
Citing Ireland’s concession of 19 points in the last quarter against Italy, he added: “We were conscious of that, being in the game and staying in the game because we’d have the chance to finish over the top of them. They’re a hard team to break down. They defend as a team, quite narrowly, come hard off their line and frustrated us. You’ve got to keep your patience against an Irish team, be prepared to kick a little, stay in that arm wrestle and wait for your opportunities.”
When asked if Ireland could win the Grand Slam, Gatland replied: “Yeah, they’re hard to break down, that’s the thing about the Irish team. They are not flashy or anything like that but they’re very clinical, they’re accurate, they keep the ball for lots and lots of phases and when they’re in your 22 they normally come away with points.
“The disappointing thing from our point of view is the things we worked on and spoke about during the week have come back to haunt us – our discipline, being prepared to go through lots and lots of phases against an Irish team without giving anything away. Unfortunately, we didn’t do that and when they got close to our goal line they were very good.”