Ireland 27 Scotland 3
This bloodless Celtic coup was almost enjoyably boring. Ireland took a firm grip on Pool A, keeping Scotland comfortably at arm’s length with this fairly emphatic bonus point win.
If they augment this victory over the hosts next Saturday, Ireland can then starting plotting the quarter-final without being disrespectful to Russia and Samoa.
Not even the eventual arrival of the rain by the end of the first half could dampen the spirits of the Irish supporters, who hailed the squad when they performed an almost ceremonial bow in accordance with Japanese custom.
The rock solid foundation stones for Ireland’s performance were the usual ones, set-piece and recycling, although another one was the strikingly effective line speed in defence, which all but negated the playmaking skills of Finn Russell.
Without being needlessly ambitious, the lineout yielded a 100 per cent return from Rory Best’s throws, and the captain’s presence for the 80 minutes is a clear signal that may be spared two games inside seven days. The scrum was also the superior force and had a perfect return from 10 put-ins to Scotland’s one from two, another signal as to how protective Ireland were of the ball.
It was entirely fitting therefore that the three first-half tries were all scored by tight-five forwards, the indefatigable and uber effective James Ryan, Tadhg Furlong and Best. As well as calling the lineouts, Iain Henderson was at his all-action, rampaging best.
The Irish halves never over played their hand in keeping a steady hand on proceedings, with Conor Murray’s kicking game palpably more effective than that of Greig Laidlaw.
Ryan’s 14 tackles were matched by Jack Conan in his hour on the pitch.
While Ireland’s defence was outflanked once, and Bundee Aki was forced off for a failed HIA after a tackle on Russell, it also forced the turnovers which led to two of Ireland’s three first-half tries. Much like the performance, the finishes were not exactly flashy, but they were effective. Another black spot on an otherwise almost perfect performance was Peter O'Mahony also being forced off due to a failed HIA.
What made Ireland’s defensive organisation all the more impressive was that Chris Farrell filled in alongside Garry Ringrose so seamlessly. The latter will have two missed tackles to his name, but both times they again closed down space and shut off attacks.
Behind them an unfamiliar and relatively inexperienced back three answered all the questions that could have been asked about them. Helped by Scotland’s inferior kicking game, which eased him into the contest, Jordan Larmour was hungry and effective in his work, albeit Joe Schmidt may not be entirely happy when the fullback's ambition twice led to turnovers.
But it was a mature, confident and secure performance by Larmour, and either side of him, Andrew Conway was rewarded for his energetic display with the fourth try, something Jacob Stockdale would have deserved for his display, notably with a couple of good and effective defensive reads.
As expected there seemed to be a more sizeable advance contingent from the Blarney Army than their Tartan counterparts amongst the 63,731 attendance for this pivotal Pool A opener, although both anthems were sung with gusto.
Larmour had an uncontested first take from Russell’s first kick from hand, though conceded a turnover with a loose offload, but soon after Duncan Taylor’s long skip pass eluded Sean Maitland, affording Ireland a lineout 40 metres out.
It would prove a costly mistake by the Saracens midfielder.
Best sniped off the maul to the blind side, showing good feet and offloading to release Murray for a chip and chase. Scotland cleared their lines, but Conway fielded Russell’s kick and offloaded to Larmour.
From the recycle, Henderson blasted through Stuart McInally and Grant Gilchrisht in a barreling 25 metre run which Stuart Hogg brought to a brave halt.
Feeding time at the zoo.
Ireland don’t normally let positions like that pass by, and they didn’t here. O’Mahony, Furlong and Larmour, off Sexton’s inside pass, were all close before Ryan burrowed over.
Sexton converted and was soon pinging two penalties into the corner as Ireland went for the jugular. Henderson called the lineout on himself at the front as the forwards quickly peeled around him and the maul drove in a tight corridor along the touchline like an arrow before Best swiveled for a good finish despite Ryan Wilson’s side-on tackle. Sexton’s conversion drifted away, but Ireland were 12-0 up.
However Conway couldn’t gather Laidlaw’s box kick and Scotland outflanked Ireland’s midfield blitz to release Tommy Seymour, Aki clashing heads with Russell and departing, but at least Chris Farrell was on the bench. Conan, a temporary replacement for a bloodied Josh van der Flier before soon replacing O’Mahony permanently, was pinged for not rolling away, and Laidlaw opened Scotland’s account.
Schmidt ended his press conference on Friday by noting that “there’s that odd-shaped ball that we play with.”
Well, it soon bounced kindly for Ireland. Farrell’s pressure and tackle on Russell forced a misplaced pass to Seymour and Conway put boot to ball to spark a good old-fashioned foot rush from inside half-way. The speedy Hogg had it covered but the ball bounced back from the padding on the upright, so allowing Conway to tackle him behind the posts.
Stander carried hard off the base of the scrum and after O’Mahony was held up Furlong crashed through the tackles of Jonny Gray and Wilson to score. Murray, assuming the kicking duties from Sexton due to a niggling injury, converted.
However Ireland then failed to convert when well set from CJ Stander’s big break up the middle, before Scotland had their first sortie when going up the line.
Ireland’s defensive maul drove them back, and when the ball was pulled back for Russell to hit Hogg, Stockdale shot up to force a spillage from the fullback.
From the resultant scrum, Murray went blind to Stockdale and he executed one of his delicate chips, with backspin, and gathered, but couldn’t offload to the supporting Murray, who might have secured the ruck ball before Russell and John Barclay counter-rucked.
After being caught awkwardly in a double tackle by the Irish props, Hamish Watson was carried off in a mobile stretcher, his left knee heavily strapped during a lengthy delay. He was actually replaced by hooker Fraser Brown, reprising his old flanker days.
Following a big Irish scrum, Murray missed the straightish 45 metre penalty with the last kick of the half. A lead of 19-3 was healthy indeed, the only reservation being that it should have been more.
The rain falling more heavily now, Henderson had a couple of big moments at the start of the second-half, tracking down Hogg in tandem with Farrell, then completing a turnover to launch a counter.
With Scotland having to play catch-up the pill was becoming increasingly slippery, Taylor spilling Russell’s pass. Larmour countered Hogg’s booming kick when chipping into space, but Maitland countered threateningly before Ryan’s important tackle.
Scotland looked more threatening when coming hard off Laidlaw until, that was, Barclay took his eye of the ball and knocked on.
Both sides went to the air and Ireland struck when Conway chased another perfectly placed, hanging Garryowen by Murray to win the deflection ahead of Wilson. Larmour gathered on the run and from the recycle – van der Flier was first there – Murray had the presence of mind to spot an unpatrolled blindside.
Conway still had work to do, stepping Russell and taking Gilchrist’s tackle for a fine score to seal the bonus point, and with that Schmidt withdrew Henderson, Murray and Sexton. Carty, with his first delicious touch, chipped into space for Farrell to reclaim the ball, but Luke McGrath couldn’t put Stockdale away. Nevertheless, Farrell took a lovely line onto Carty’s pass as a prelude to the latter’s penalty making it 27-3.
The one blemish occurred when Chris Harris took a nice inside line onto Russell’s pass and offloaded to Hogg, and Beirne was yellow carded for contesting on the floor after the ruck had formed.
But Conan charged off Porter’s turnover to lift the siege, and Ireland kept their line intact before running down the lock. Easy does it.
SCORING SEQUENCE: 6 mins Ryan try, Sexton con 7-0; 14 mins Best try 12-0; 21 mins Laidlaw pen 12-3; 25 mins Farrell try, Murray con 19-3; (half-way 19-3); 56 Conway try 24-3; 67 mins Carty pen 27-3.
IRELAND: Jordan Larmour (Leinster); Andrew Conway (Munster), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Bundee Aki (Connacht), Jacob Stockdale (Ulster); Johnny Sexton (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster); Cian Healy (Leinster), Rory Best (Ulster, capt), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); Iain Henderson (Ulster), James Ryan (Leinster); Peter O'Mahony (Munster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), CJ Stander (Munster)
Replacements: Jack Conan (Leinster) for Van der Flier (14-22 mins) and for O'Mahony (25 mins), Chris Farrell (Munster) for Aki (22 mins), Dave Kilcoyne (Munster) for Healy, Andrew Porter (Leinster) for Furlong (both 50 mins), Tadhg Beirne (Munster) for Henderson, Luke McGrath (Leinster) for Murray, Jack Carty (Connacht) for Sexton (all 58 mins), Niall Scannell for Van der Flier (73 mins).
Sinbinned: Beirne (69-79 mins).
Scotland: Stuart Hogg (Exeter Chiefs); Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors), Duncan Taylor (Saracens), Sam Johnson (Glasgow Warriors), Sean Maitland (Saracens); Finn Russell (Racing 92), Greig Laidlaw (Clermont); Allan Dell (London Irish), Stuart McInally (Edinburgh, capt), Willem Nel (Edinburgh), Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh), Jonny Gray (Edinburgh), John Barclay (Edinburgh), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh), Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors).
Replacements: Fraser Brown (Glasgow Warriors) for Watson (39 mins), Blade Thomson (Scarlets) for Barclay, Simon Berghan (Edinburgh) for Nell (both 53 mins), Darcy Graham (Edinburgh) for Seymour (58 mins), Gordon Reid (Ayrshire Bulls) for Dell, Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors) for Laidlaw (both 62 mins), Scott Cummings (Glasgow Warriors) for Gray, Chris Harris (Gloucester) for Taylor (both 65 mins).
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)