Ireland find clinical edge to end campaign on a high

Farrell’s side have fresh momentum and can move on to next year with optimism

 

Ireland 31 Scotland 16

Cocooned in a monastic bubble and feeling under siege, this was a statement win by this Irish team. Not only are they not to be written off just yet by the dastardly media, they may well indeed be on the right track.

“I’m not sure about that,” said Andy Farrell when asked afterwards if his team had made a statement. “Obviously everyone knows the stick that we’ve come in for.

“I thought we started pretty well in the first five or six minutes, we had some good intent but I thought the period just before half-time we showed our intent especially with the ball.

“At half-time we had a few things to address defensively. I thought we had been a little bit passive from time to time which gave them good inroads and the Scottish are a really good attacking side.

“I thought we defended really well. We switched off once for the try obviously, but I thought we were aggressive. We controlled them really well in that second half and that was the catalyst for the performance.”

Ireland can now park 2020 and console themselves that they finished the year even more emphatically as the best of the rest than they started it when edgily beating Scotland by a score.

Admittedly, almost half an hour in and while things weren’t critical for Ireland, they weren’t going particularly well either. Scotland, playing what Gregor Townsend described as probably their best rugby of the year, led 9-3. The critics were either clearing their throats or poised over their keyboards.

Peter O’Mahony scores a ‘try’ that was later disallowed against Scotland at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho
Peter O’Mahony scores a ‘try’ that was later disallowed against Scotland at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho

Ireland had missed 17 tackles, creaked on both a throw-in and put-in, hadn’t serviced an attacking ruck with a scrumhalf after Robbie Henshaw had brilliantly reclaimed a Conor Murray box kick and then left the backfield vacant for Jaco Van Der Walt to find touch ten metres out. Oh dear. Basic stuff.

But as Johnny Sexton is wont to remind us, Test match rugby isn’t an 80-minute joyride. At this point Rob Herring’s long throw found Bundee Aki and he was tackled in the air by Matt Fagerson. Sexton found touch near halfway, whereupon Ireland sprang vibrantly into life, perhaps producing their best 20 minutes of rugby this year. It was a vignette of the high tempo, heads-up game they are striving to achieve, with plenty of width.

The set-pieces now functioning, their resourcing of the rucks ensured a steady stream of quick ball as both ‘barrels’ executed their clear-outs. To concede so few turnovers at the breakdown against this Scottish backrow amid the current breakdown interpretations was quite an achievement. Matt Carley refereed this area, like the game overall, sensibly.

Helpfully, their footwork before contact was much improved, Caelan Doris (13 carries for 65 metres, all in traffic), O’Mahony (11 carries for 64 metres) and Aki leading the charge when repeatedly pumping their legs in the tackle.

Huge shifts

Andrew Porter and James Ryan, two of the ever-present starters in this demanding six-game sequence, again put in huge shifts. Ireland’s kick-chase was also varied and generally on the money.

Hugo Keenan popped an offload out of the tackle to Jacob Stockdale, another who consistently carried over the gain line, on the left before the halves, the centres and CJ Stander worked the ball to Peter O’Mahony on the right.

The rejuvenated O’Mahony has, as an aside, quite taken to his new role in the loose as a quasi-right winger. A week ago there had been a grubber and gather. Later he was denied a Shane Horgan-esque finish when brushing the try line. Here he bounced Ali Price and spun away from Blade Thompson.

The ensuing tip-on by Iain Henderson for another charge by Doris was augmented by Porter clearing out the ruck like a steam train before Duncan Taylor shot out of the line to palm the ball down in cutting out a four-on-two overlap and was duly binned.

Sexton took the three and Ireland sniffed blood. Stockdale’s carry, Henshaw’s kick and Keenan’s chase earned an attacking lineout. Although the attack didn’t execute a strike move off a scrum and one penalty advantage was wasted, when again playing with house money, Henshaw’s Gaelic football aerial skills from Sexton’s Carlos Spencer-like kick over his left shoulder led to Keith Earls pouncing on the breaking ball.

Eric O’Sullivan, on his Ireland debut, takes on Scotland at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Eric O’Sullivan, on his Ireland debut, takes on Scotland at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Ending a sequence of poor third quarters, there was also a hint of Ireland’s 2018 vintage as another two converted tries were tagged on within ten minutes of the second period.

Executing all the basics, suddenly the game looked very simple again. Cian Healy, with the omnipresent O’Mahony latching on, ploughed over before Ireland’s carrying and recycling earned the right to go wide where O’Mahony’s quick hands put Earls over for his second. Game over.

It should have been more, but Quinn Roux needlessly competed at a Scottish ruck rather than remain the first pillar and Duhan Van Der Merwe, a top-class finisher, stepped Herring before rounding Stockdale to score, and instead of O’Mahony’s try, Ireland had to settle for two Ross Byrne penalties.

But that defensive mishap apart, Ireland’s line speed and tackle execution was much better in the second half as they kept a briefly revived Scotland scoreless thereafter.

In the nick of time, this Irish team had found the clinical edge to reward their work over the last eight weeks and give credence to their real belief that they are making progress.

A gap

That doesn’t guarantee three away wins, beginning with the 2021 Six Nations opener against Wales in just nine weeks’ time, and as Sexton acknowledged, there’s a gap to be bridged between them and the Big Two. But Ireland have generated momentum and can move on to next year with something to build on rather than re-build.

While no team will ever be at full strength, there’s also the likelihood of having Tadhg Furlong, Dan Leavy and Garry Ringrose back in the mix. What’s more, France and England have to come to the Aviva Stadium, where Ireland have now won eight in a row and 21 of their last 22 Tests, and fingers crossed, fans may be present.

Okay, there have been two wins apiece against their fellow Celts and Italy, as well as Georgia and France pre-Fabien Galthie. Even so, things look a good deal brighter than they did circa 2.45pm last Saturday.

Scoring sequence: 13 mins van der Walt pen 0-3; 20 van der Walt pen 0-6; 23 Sexton pen 3-6; 27 van der Walt pen 3-9; 32 Sexton pen 6-9; 38 Earls try 11-9; (half-time 11-9); 44 Healy try, Sexton con 18-9; 50 Earls try, Sexton con 25-9; 56 van der Merwe try, van der Walt con 25-16; 56 Byrne pen 28-16; 76 Byrne pen 31-16.

IRELAND: Jacob Stockdale (Ulster); Hugo Keenan (Leinster), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster), Bundee Aki (Connacht), Keith Earls (Munster); Jonathan Sexton (Leinster, capt), Conor Murray (Munster); Cian Healy (Leinster), Rob Herring (Ulster), Andrew Porter (Leinster); Iain Henderson (Ulster), James Ryan (Leinster); CJ Stander (Munster), Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Caelan Doris (Leinster).

Replacements: Quinn Roux (Connacht) for Henderson (38 mins), Josh van der Flier (Leinster) for O’Mahony (53-63 mins) and for Doris (66 mins), Ross Byrne (Leinster) for Sexton (64 mins), Rónan Kelleher (Leinster) for Herring, Eric O’Sullivan (Ulster) for Healy (both 66 mins), John Ryan (Munster) for Porter (75 mins), Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster) for Murray, Chris Farrell (Munster) for Henshaw (both 78 mins).

SCOTLAND: Stuart Hogg (Exeter, captain), Darcy Graham (Edinburgh), Chris Harris (Gloucester), Duncan Taylor (Saracens), Duhan Van Der Merwe, Jaco Van Der Walt (both Edinburgh), Ali Price (Glasgow), Rory Sutherland (Edinburgh), Fraser Brown, Zander Fagerson, Scott Cummings (all Glasgow), Jonny Gray (Exeter), Blade Thompson (Scarlets), James Ritchie (Edinburgh), Matt Fagerson (Glasgow).

Replacements: Huw Jones (Glasgow) for (52 mins), Sean Maitland (Saracens) for Graham (57 mins), Oli Kebble (Glasgow) for Sutherland, Sam Skinner (Exeter) for Cummings, Huw Jones (Glasgow) for Taylor (all 64 mins), George Turner (Glasgow) for Brown, WP Nel (Edinburgh) for Z Fagerson, Blair Cowan (London Irish) for Ritchie (all 66 mins), Sam Hidalgo-Clyne (Exeter) for Price (75 mins).

Sinbinned: Taylor (31 mins).

Referee: Matt Carley (England).

Assistant referees: Karl Dickson (England), Romain Poite (France).

Television Match Official: Dan Jones (Wales).

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