Liam Toland: Brutally efficient champions worthy of huge praise
Scotland were full of clever plays, offloads but lacked the power and oomph to hurt Ireland.
On Friday I wondered about Gregor Townsend’s reaction to previous Scottish mistakes in that what you measure, you manage.
Ireland land yet another bonus-point win and the Championship with a mouth-watering visit to Twickenham to come and yet I feel disappointed; very strange.
Maybe it’s because some of Scotland’s play was mesmerisingly wonderful to watch and more than worthy of scores. And had the scores come for them it would have actually pushed Ireland into a dark place and one I would have really enjoyed watching as they navigated a way out to win.
In fact the game started wonderfully.
I had been concerned on Friday that Ireland needed to vary their ball carrying with an obvious Scottish target on CJ Stander’s back but they did far more than that by avoiding Stander in the opening quarter and getting their two props Tadhg Furlong and Cian Healy out into midfield. Furlong took off Bundee Aki on 6:36 and less than 30 seconds later as the ball flashed over and back Healy was powering up the centre of the pitch.
The pair made several big carries with both constantly looking to not die with the ball and instead find a support runner. Dan Leavy was immense when Ireland were varying the point of contact and shifting Scotland away from a narrow fringe defence. He carried but his clear-outs were technically superb.
However when Scotland’s dander started to rise along with their pace and at times wonderful offloads and interplay, Ireland concertina-ed their opening quarter into narrow power plays.
It takes a very intelligent team to understand the subtleties of tempo and threats and Ireland clearly adjusted to the Scottish style. In those swing championship moments, Ireland mauled two lineouts in a row; slowing the Scots down and sucking the life out of them. This was immediately after Huw Jones butchered a try scoring pass to Stuart Hogg on 28:11.
Ireland recognised the dangers and were to steal and force a breakdown penalty from Scotland on 28:37 and 31:11 and then adjusted impressively to their power game.
Take the lineout maul contrast. In the second half Scotland went to the corner off a penalty searching for a lineout try. They piled 10 players (maybe even more; I lost count) into the lineout, the result of which ended in confusion and the ball dropping to the ground.
In contrast it’s no coincidence that Ireland’s third try came from a Stander carry, breakdown penalty, kick to touch, lineout maul with Murray touching down. Ditto Sean Cronin’s bonus point try. Simple really; but beyond Scotland who were full of clever plays, offloads but lacked the power and oomph to hurt Ireland.
Where I had no concern was the appalling manner in which England conceded the breakdown in Edinburgh; that was simply never going to happen in Dublin. Yes both sides stole the odd ball, eked out a penalty, but in that opening quarter Ireland blitzed Scotland giving Conor Murray clean ball unfettered by Scottish counter rucking.
In fact there were several monster counter-rucks from Ireland that stymied Scotland especially in those moments when Scotland could have scored such as on 35:20 where Stander spotted a chance to once again punish Scotland with a quality counter-ruck.
The scrum was an interesting battle where, for some reason unknown to me, Ireland’s tight head didn’t appear to lead into the ‘set’ which meant for all our put-ins the scrum had rotated about 45° clockwise. It did force Murray to go against the wheel on occasion such as the first Irish scrum on 2:45 leading to his little dink for Keith Earls to chase. But I was wondering why it was happening; was it self-inflicted or forced?
An insight into this will arise with squad selection for the infinitely more challenging scrum Ireland face this coming Saturday in Twickenham.
Rob Kearney received man-of-the-match and a wonderful impact he made on all aspects of the game. I did marvel at the performance from Garry Ringrose whose class was so overtly on display in everything he does. With minimal pitch time under his belt he totally outshone Jones. How good can Ireland become as Ringrose develops?
But in the engine-room James Ryan was once again magnificent; all the usual stuff but the moment that captured my attention was Jacob Stockdale’s second try on the stroke of half-time, but not the touchdown.
Scotland had what they figured was an attacking lineout. The bungled it and Ryan, alert as ever, gathered. He could have so easily taken contact from Greig Laidlaw in the knowledge that Irish troops were right behind but he shifted his feet took Laidlaw on his own terms gained the soft shoulder and five crucial yards, swivelled his head and found an onrushing Rory Best with energy oozing from the crowd.
A defensive lineout had transitioned into all sorts of possibilities which Stockdale was to ultimately maximise. It looks small but Ryan’s attitude and execution makes a massive difference to the fancy boys out wide.
Ireland have become brutally efficient Six Nations champions worthy of huge praise in managing all the challenges presented, injuries, squad rotation, a massive away win in Paris and so many more.
Part of me wanted Scotland to score tries on Saturday because I love watching Hogg et al on the fly; but they weren’t good enough, neither were France, Italy nor Wales. And I don’t think England are either.
PS. The Stoop this Friday 7:45 pm… Legends.