February 7, 2014
The morning of the game brought yet another withdrawal from the squad as news of Paul O’Connell’s chest infection filtered across the airwaves. Having already lost Reddan and Fitzgerald during the week on top of all of the existing injuries Ireland were suddenly without several players who would have featured in the match-day squad if all were available. This needs to be remembered in the context of the game as it meant that Ireland were a good ways off full strength and so we were always going to struggle to deliver a hugely convincing performance. Yet we still won by 22 points, which is convincing enough.
THE ATTACKING GAME:
Scotlands attacking game initially consisted of keeping the ball in hand and utilising the full width of the pitch to stretch the Irish defence. The handling from the Scots was actually quite impressive in the opening half but the Irish drift defence dealt with them with relative ease. In the end Scotland were forced to fall back on a kicking game to get into the Irish 22. This kicking game was very well executed, with most kicks falling close to the touch line. The Scottish chasers were then able to force the defender into touch winning the throw in to the line-out. But they were either unable to secure their own line-out or protect the ball at the breakdown well enough and so were unable to convert that territory and possession into points.
We had more attacks in their 22 than they did in ours and we just couldn’t convert
- Scott Johnson
The opening 30-35 minutes highlighted this quite starkly. After Henry conceded a penalty for sealing off in the opening stages Laidlaw hit the post from straight in front and about 42m out. Almost immediately after they took a quick line-out Hogg found a gap up the middle and put Duncan Weir through it. But the support was too slow to get there and Peter O’Mahoney got his hands on the ball and turned it over. This was the pattern for most of the game for Scotland save one try scoring opportunity off the back of a scrum, where Denton picked and went down the narrow side but was bundled into touch, and a line-out in the second half that led to a penalty. But this was as good as it got for Scotland.
Even looking at where their scores came from tells the tale. After the missed penalty around the Ireland 10m line Laidlaw got Scotland on the board after a penalty was awarded for Devin Toner not rolling away. But again this was just inside the Ireland 10m line. Their second score didn’t come until the start of the second half during one of their few visits into the Ireland 22. In 80 minutes they only had 2 scoring opportunities inside the Irish 22 of which they converted just 1.
On the other hand Ireland seemed far more dangerous on the attack. They went through the phases more effectively than Scotland and were able to get themselves into the Scottish 22 without having to rely on kicking in behind as much. With 45% possession we ensured that over 70% of the game was played in the Scottish half. Balls won in open play amounted to 111-74 in favour of Ireland, but balls won in the opposition 22 was a staggering 45-9 in favour of Ireland. Scotland had a single try scoring opportunity all game and failed to convert. Ireland had about 5 and scored 3. The missed opportunities led to points on the board through penalties. Breaks like Sextons just before half time or Cian Healys around the 60 minute mark along with some of the line-out mauls paid dividends for Ireland. It would be remiss not to mention some of the passing such as Sextons in that break above or Marshalls out to Dave Kearney in the build up to Irelands second try. A lack of accuracy at times prevented more line breaks, but these things will improve as the weeks go on.
When Ireland did kick they did so to regain possession. Players gave chase and either regained possession or turned over ball in the contact, be it through forcing knock-ons or stealing ball from the deck. While the first half, and even the second, may not have been vintage rugby it was certainly effective. Simple stuff done well and clinically executed. Exactly what we expect from Joe Schmidt. And in stark contrast to Scotland.
Ireland also looked to use the maul as a weapon, something Schmidt has tasked forwards coach Plumtree to implement. And on the couple of occasions we saw Ireland go to the maul it was incredibly effective.
I’d never be happy, there’s always something to improve
- Joe Schmidt
It wasn’t all positive of course. We lacked the ball carrying of Sean O’Brien and some of the incision we would expect from the likes of Bowe, Earls or Fitzgerald. This meant we probably had to work that bit harder for the scores and I’m sure also meant a lower number of opportunities. But the overall approach and execution was actually quite positive. Like Leinster under Joe Schmidt, when they got into the red zone Ireland invariably came away with points. It was the inability to do this last year that cost us this very fixture. So that is definitely a huge step in the right direction.
THE DEFENSIVE GAME:
The tackling stats are positive reading for both coaches. Both sides had tackle completion stats of around 90%. Duncan Weir was the hardest worker on the pitch in this area, making a whopping 15 tackles and missing none. That really is a great stat for an out-half. The closest to him in an Ireland shirt would be either Brian O’Driscoll (10 from 12) or Jamie Heaslip (10 from 11). Alex Dunbar was right up there with Weir with 14 from 14 tackles. Despite having the majority of possession Scotland still had to make more tackles, with them chalking up 177 to Irelands 124. This was due to the fact that Ireland kept it tight and built the phases well where Scotland tended to play expansively. It is probably for this reason that Ireland were more effective on the attack as they were more patient and controlled.
But O’Driscoll in particular deserves special mention. His aggression in defense was marvelous and he turned over a few balls in contact as well. He kept the same intensity up from the first whistle to the last, earning the nickname “Brian Button” from his teammates.
One area that will concern Joe Schmidt is the turnover stats. Peter O’Mahoney, having possibly his best game in green, stood out in this regard with 3 turnovers. But that was matched by Sean Lamont, a winger! Ireland conceded 10 turnovers to Scotlands 9 and most of those came in the first half when Conor Murray wasn’t being protected in the way that he should have been at the ruck area. This is something that Ireland will need to clamp down on because against the Welsh back row they will be punished.
Ireland did look to use the choke tackle a number of times through-out the game and I struggle to remember a single occasion where it was completed successfully. Scotland were always able to make it to deck before the maul was called. If Ireland are going to commit men to force the maul then they need to be doing it better. Otherwise they shouldn’t be doing it at all.
THE SET PIECE:
The scrums and line-outs were another area where Ireland had a clear advantage. Ireland won all of their own scrums and won 2 of Scotland’s 6 against the head. In the line-out Ireland won 13 of their own 15 and stole 5 of Scotland’s 15. Two of Ireland’s scores came off the back of turnovers at set piece; the first penalty and the second try. Mike Ross had been struggling with the new scrum laws this season but there was no sign of that on Sunday and while Murray Lowe made a number of attempts to get under Cian Healy’s skin in the scrum the Irish LH did not rise to it.
At the line-out Devin Toner, Dan Tuohy and Peter O’Mahony were constant thorn in Ford and Hamilton’s sides. Ireland will look to build on this over the course of the tournament.
Bearing in mind those players that were missing this performance from Ireland was very encouraging. They showed the same kind of patient and clinical nature we’ve seen from Leinster in the last few seasons and there was great purpose to what they were trying to do. Not everything came off perfectly and they will need to step up certain areas, the breakdown being one, for the game against Wales this week. But as starts to a campaign go this was certainly a positive one. As players start to come back into the squad this Irish side will only get better and better. And the intensity that Paul O’Connell alone will bring on Saturday will help up front. Wales didn’t exactly start well last week and last season in their second game against France they played their part in what was one of the worst 6 Nations games in recent memory. With any luck Ireland’s intensity be will at the level required come Saturday and they can build on this good start. They certainly appear to be better placed to get the win in the Aviva anyway.