Predictions heading into this one suggested that, in a contest between two sides that love to be aggressive in attack, the rugby on offer might be very watchable. That it proved to be as Scotland threw everything they had at Ireland early doors, breaking the defensive line seemingly at will to the point where the Triple Crown narrative might have been at threat. Darcy Graham in particular caused plenty of problems. That said, Ireland did manage to fire a few shots of their own in return.
The stats from the first quarter are remarkable: three Irish line-breaks compared to two Scottish ones; 262 running metres for Ireland vs 296 for Scotland while the hosts missed five tackles to Scotland’s eight. Both sides offered plenty of running threat early on while being porous in defence.
Bear in mind as well that for all this attacking threat/defensive negligence, the scoring wasn’t opened until the 17th minute. As Wayne Barnes said to his assistant Karl Dickson at one point: “we said there might be some width, didn’t we?”?
For all of Scotland’s early pressure, a moment of skill from Johnny Sexton flipped the momentum on its head. His 50:22 with Stuart Hogg barely out of position in the Scotland backfield led to a period of pressure deep in opposition territory, and 10 minutes later Ireland had 14 points on the board.
It was a cruel one for Hogg who only moments earlier had displayed brilliant backfield coverage to deal with a threat from Jamison Gibson-Park, but it was equally a moment from which Ireland never looked back.
Keenan to the rescue
It was a piece of brilliance that risked being overshadowed by the decision not to award Pierre Schoeman a red card that came seconds afterwards, but Hugo Keenan may well have saved the match for Ireland with his try-saving tackle on opposite number on Hogg. The Scotland fullback looked dead set to score in the 49th minute, only for Keenan to put in an incredible tackle that knocked him into touch.
Hogg had an all but clear run to the line but the pace shown by Keenan to make up the ground and the technique to shunt his legs into touch was simply remarkable. It’s worth remembering as well that the score was only 14-5 at this point, a Scotland seven-pointer there and they were well and truly back in it.
It wasn’t the only time Ireland showed a markedly improved defensive showing in the second half. One period of Scottish pressure stands out in particular, one that was ended first by a rip in contact from Robbie Henshaw, then a tackle while flying out of the line from Mack Hansen plus a subsequent counter-ruck. The passage demonstrated the decision-making and execution we have come to expect from this Ireland side.
As Andy Farrell himself said after the game: "we were unbelievable defending our own line."
Even though the attack was not at its fluid best today, if Ireland can consistently defend like they did after half-time they will always be in contention.
Mixed bag at the scrum
It won’t be as much of a concern as last week in Twickenham given it was the second choice frontrow rather than the starters that struggled at the scrum against Scotland, but nonetheless scrum coach John Fogarty will have plenty of work-ons in this area .
Dave Kilcoyne actually started his day really well, winning two scrum penalties out of his first three set-pieces. However, after that, he equalled his ledger by giving away two penalties while fellow replacement Finlay Bealham was also pinged once.
This is ultimately the key takeaway from this Ireland group from the championship. It isn’t the first time we have spoken about Ireland racking up a big winning margin and a bonus point after being far from their cohesive best. Combining last week at Twickenham with Saturday evening’s game leads to a pattern being created.
“We’ve shown in the last couple of weeks that we’ve got some grit,”explained Farrell. “We’ve got some nerve to be able to stay calm and take the bonus point. Three bonus point wins on the trot is fantastic.
“The mental side of the game is just as important as the physical side and we can still build on our potential. We talk about it a lot. You saw it today, we kicked to the corner and didn’t get the points but we stayed calm. The points came in the end and there’s belief in that.
“Errors are common and how you react to that, that’s your choice. At the minute we’re able to stay calm and get on with the job.”
Be it good coaching, an experienced leadership group or just the character of the individual players in the squad, an environment of calm, level-headed play while trying to be as creative as possible with the ball has been forged.
If Ireland can consistently soak up the best of what opposition teams throw at them, make plenty of mistakes but then still end up winning games comfortably, they will remain in a very good position.