Ireland show ambition in adversity to secure Six Nations title

Backline benefit from change in mindset as Seán O’Brien returns to his best

The mind, and specifically the mindset of a team, is a curious thing indeed. It is extremely hard to imagine Ireland would have played with such positivity and freedom from the off had, say, a Grand Slam been at stake.

Such would have been the scale of the prize, and the pressure accompanying it, that Ireland would assuredly have played with more caution, or at any rate not been so ambitious from the start. Indeed, it would be quite easy to imagine that Ireland would have ended up winning one of those taut, one-score games that are more often the norm hereabouts.

Whatever about that, Ireland had employed altogether different exit strategies in their four previous games, going through a few close-in phases to engineer a relieving kick from Conor Murray or Johnny Sexton. But here the first instinct of the Ireland halves was to move the ball wide, usually from right to left as that is where Scotland located all of their restarts.

In this regard too, Wales may also have done Ireland something of a favour by running up such a big score and in the process setting Ireland a target of winning by 21 points, which admittedly could have been a whopping 28 points had Leonardo Sarto not scored at the death. That had uncanny echoes of Ireland’s 51-24 win in Rome at the start of the final day in 2007 when pulling clear from 13-12 ahead approaching half-time only to concede a late seven-pointer.

Liberating

The combination of having a title to go for on points difference with a minimum of a 21-point winning margin proved as liberating for Ireland as Wales’s position as the day’s “rabbit” had done for them.

The immediate beneficiary was Luke Fitzgerald. Watching from the stands in his capacity as one of Ireland's two covering players along with Tommy O'Donnell, Simon Zebo wouldn't be human if he didn't reflect ruefully that Fitzgerald received more balls on the wing in space in the first 10 minutes or so than he had done in four previous games.

In any event, Joe Schmidt's selection of the Leinster left winger was thoroughly vindicated by the manner he scampered up the wing and linked superbly with Robbie Henshaw.

Jared Payne, as a former fullback, also revelled in this more expansive approach, showing his full array of footballing skills, defending superbly and registering his first try for his adopted country.

The back three were also uber composed in the air, and once again restricted yardage gains or any attacking lineouts to the opposition with their covering and work-rate, and it would be remiss not to acknowledge the importance of Conor Murray to this team. His sweeping defence, strength and innate footballing ability shone through in broken play, as well as the strength of all his basic scrumhalf play.

Efficiency

None of the back play would have been possible without the hard carrying and efficiency of the pack, nor indeed the accurate set-piece and clearing out. Rory Best put one lost throw behind him when, with the next, locating Devin Toner with an inch-perfect lofted throw to the tail from which the lock feinted to set up a maul but instead slipped the ball under his arm for Seán O’Brien to break clear and score his first try. No less than Fitzgerald, Cian Healy’s selection was utterly vindicated as he was also allowed to do some damage to the Scottish scrum.

Needing games to play himself back to form, and afflicted by a truncated tournament interrupted by a tweaked hamstring in the Rome warm-up and concussion against France, O’Brien was at his barnstorming best.

Excellent at the breakdown in Cardiff, this was also a timely reminder, not that we had forgotten, of his immense importance to this team when at his best.

He gives Ireland go-forward ball when they have no right really, or at any rate in a manner no other Irish forward can do. The stats tell us that O’Brien carried 12 times for a whopping 68 metres, and there were also his two “get outta my way” tries.

Best half

Peter O’Mahony probably had his best game, or certainly half, of the tournament as well in Saturday’s second period. Insomuch as the immediate postmatch stats can be trusted, he was credited with being Ireland’s leading tackler (with 13), also made 13 carries and, as

Joe Schmidt

noted, at one point decided that the backs had made such poor work of the aerial stuff in Cardiff that he took it upon himself to make one leaping take which any fullback would have been proud of.

Credit too to Johnny Sexton, who as ever put himself in the way of the heavy traffic with 11 tackles despite seeming to be troubled by the hamstring problem which eventually forced him off.

It almost goes without saying that Paul O’Connell was immense as well, and for the second game in consecutive weekends the 35-year-old led from the front in his own inimitable style, leading the way on the scoreboard with his seventh try for Ireland – 100 games after his first.

Lamenting how Ireland had not marked their captain’s century milestone a week before, nonetheless Schmidt noted how O’Connell put that disappointment behind him when “the big fella decided to grab the group by the neck.”

As you’d expect. No better man. He really is quite remarkable.

Scoring sequence: 5 mins O'Connell try, Sexton con 0-7; 10 mins Sexton pen 0-10; 18 mins Russell pen 3-10; 25 mins O'Brien try, Sexton con 3-17; 29 mins Russell try, Laidlaw con 10-17; 34 mins Sexton pen 10-20; 45 mins Sexton pen 10-23; 50 mins Payne try, Sexton con 10-30; 62 mins Sexton pen 10-33; 72 mins O'Brien try, Madigan con 10-40.

SCOTLAND: S Hogg (Glasgow Warriors); D Fife (Edinburgh), M Bennett (Glasgow Warriors), M Scott (Edinburgh), T Seymour (Glasgow Warriors); F Russell (Glasgow Warriors), G Laidlaw (Gloucester) (capt); R Grant (Glasgow Warriors), R Ford (Edinburgh), E Murray (Glasgow Warriors), J Hamilton (Saracens), J Gray (Glasgow Warriors), A Ashe (Glasgow Warriors), B Cowan (London Irish), D Denton (Edinburgh).

Replacements: G Cross (London Irish) for Murray (12 mins), T Visser (Edinburgh) for Fife (12-22 mins) and for Bennett (71 mins), A Dickinson (Edinburgh) for Grant (32 mins), F Brown (Glasgow Warriors) for Ford, T Swinson (Glasgow Warriors) for Hamilton (both 53 mins), R Harley (Glasgow Warriors) for Ashe, S Hidalgo-Clyne (Edinburgh) for Laidlaw (both 56 mins), G Tonks (Edinburgh) for Scott (70 mins). Sinbinned: Cross (56-66 mins).

IRELAND: R Kearney (Leinster); T Bowe (Ulster), J Payne (Ulster), R Henshaw (Connacht), L Fitzgerald (Leinster); J Sexton (Racing Metro 92), C Murray (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), M Ross (Leinster), Devin Toner (Leinster), P O'Connell (Munster) (capt), P O'Mahony (Munster), Seán O'Brien (Leinster), J Heaslip (Leinster).

Replacements: M Moore (Leinster) for Ross (46 mins), J McGrath (Leinster) for Healy (53 mins), S Cronin (Leinster) for Best, I Henderson (Ulster) for Toner (62 mins), I Madigan (Leinster) for Sexton (71 mins), J Murphy (Leinster) for O'Brien (78 mins), E Reddan (Leinster) for Murray (80 mins). Not used: F Jones (Munster).

Referee: Jerome Garces (France).