A new coach, a new captain but the result was the same as always for Ireland against Scotland on Dublin’s Lansdowne Road. Andy Farrell may not remember his first game as Ireland’s head coach with any particular pride, such was the error count. Defiance and hunger, though, remain palpable Irish characteristics and were needed as they withstood a last-ditch assault on their line by Scotland.
“You can sum the performance up in those last five minutes,” said Farrell. “We asked the lads to make sure they stand for something. It was true Irish grit out there.”
Nobody could have complained particularly had Scotland snatched the draw, but their hunt for a win on this site will stretch on beyond 22 years. They have a new captain, too. While Johnny Sexton marked the era of his captaincy with an accumulation of points typical in its ruthlessness, scoring all 19 of Ireland’s, Stuart Hogg marked his era as Scotland’s captain with one of the more toe-curling howlers, dropping the ball with the line at his mercy in the second half. “It was a schoolboy error,” he conceded. “I can’t change what has happened. I just have to get on with it but I’ve apologised to the boys.”
His error was no more than the most extreme example of the kind of slip that might sum up Scotland, who played most of the rugby, or at least seemed to such were the stings they inflicted, but the kill proved beyond them. Time and again a promising move – and even the full-on threatening ones – foundered either on their own carelessness or, more often, on the insatiable presence of Ireland’s back row at the breakdown.
It is a trope hardly worth repeating that discipline is key to these matches. Scotland’s deficiency in it plagued them throughout. Rugby’s lottery by whistle will punish any team as much as it might reward but, when a penalty count strays well into double figures, a team need to look in the mirror, however promising the rest of their play. Scotland’s indiscipline seeped throughout their endeavours, as fundamental to their careless errors as to the decisions of the referee.
This Ireland team have always been the harder of mind but they took a terrific pounding of body. Alas, the eagerly awaited debut of Caelan Doris was cut short by a concussion in the fifth minute. It was a wider loss to the narrative but less of one to the functioning of Ireland’s defence, allowing as it did for the familiar figure of Peter O’Mahony to resume his spiky role at the heart of proceedings.
Ireland’s injury problems did not stop there. Garry Ringrose was off at half-time with a hand injury and the musical chairs in their front row was something to behold as the game wore on – Cian Healy, for example, going and coming and going and coming again as his colleagues fell. In light of that Ireland’s grit to the very end was all the more impressive.
Their attacking game was more fitful but early indications were positive. Scotland opened with intent, garnering the first of Adam Hastings’ four penalties, before Sexton swooped for the game’s only try. After an attacking lineout slick handling between James Ryan and Cian Healy found Conor Murray in the pivot position. His delayed pass to Sexton was worthy of the latter himself and set him on the way to the try line. So far so familiar but it proved a false harbinger of any further Irish try-scoring, as much as anything because of their own looseness.
A vignette just before half-time was illustrative. Ireland were looking dangerous, when Murray’s pass was seized on by Sam Johnson, who was away from his own 22 towards Ireland’s. The counter was sustained by Nick Haining and Blair Kinghorn down the left before Hogg was hot-stepping ever closer.
But just as the line beckoned CJ Stander pounced to force the turnover penalty. A half-time score of 10-6 to Ireland felt unsatisfactory, even if the margin felt about right.
Then came Hogg’s howler early in the second half. Sexton had extended Ireland’s lead with a second penalty but one area where Scotland held an unexpected edge was at the scrum. They won their second penalty there and soon had worked Hogg into the corner. As he went to score unopposed he contrived to spill the ball a split-second before he touched down. There was no chance of the TMO missing it.
An earlier infringement meant, at least, that Hastings could pull back three points. Sexton had those back again with a penalty five minutes later, before a break by Ali Price set up position for Hastings’ fourth, leaving the contest poised as the endgame approached.
The Aviva waited to see who might blink. Inevitably it was Scotland. Johnson, who had been one of Scotland’s better players, senselessly blocked Andrew Conway’s hopeful chase of an up-and-under and Sexton slotted an easy penalty to leave Scotland up against it.
A lovely break by Stuart McInally, developed by the ever-superb Hamish Watson, enabled them to edge to within inches of the line. But, whatever their mood, whoever their captain and coach, Ireland are at their best defending in this area. Sure enough, Stander spotted a glimpse of daylight over Watson’s latest charge for the line and the siege was lifted, Ireland’s honour preserved.
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