Irish supporters and media have spent the days since Saturday dissecting a seemingly terrible performance. The Scottish public, meanwhile, has no doubt been basking in the warm glow of what they view to be a wonderful display. The truth, however, or at least the true quality of each side’s performances probably lies somewhere in the middle.
Scotland, on the one hand, commendably identified that old Irish bugbear – soft, narrow defence – and punished it. Throw in a pretty clever, one-off lineout play and a quietening of a seemingly unstoppable Irish back row, in a manner not seen since Wellington 2011, and it’s fair to say the home side got a lot right.
Still, Ireland dominated the scrum, in addition to possession, and by sixty minutes had fought their way into a position of dominance reflected by their perilous one point lead. Ultimately, the combination of heavy legs, a weak bench and a lack of accuracy – no doubt brought about by that insurmountable challenge of the fifteen-minute bus delay – meant that Scotland actually closed out the game with relative ease.
In any event, the game has been dissected ad infinitum and, as has been the case since the beginning of time, media and supporters have moved seamlessly from discussing the Grand Slam showdown with England to questioning how we’ve fallen so far, so quickly.
Now, of course, by losing their opener Ireland will in the words of Aaron Rodgers, ‘have to run the table’ in order to be victorious in March. However, the defeat has also focused minds and will, if nothing else, bring an end to our unnecessarily lofty expectations. And, the Grand Slam should not be the measure of a season, winning the championship should.
In that sense, the visit to Rome on Saturday offers the best tonic. France have affirmed their November regeneration and look lively again, Wales robust and business-like. Under no circumstances would Ireland be best served by appearing under the Friday-night lights in Cardiff after last week’s performance. Some might argue that a stiff challenge would force Ireland to step up immediately but back-to-back defeats could force Ireland into a tailspin. Therefore, with all due obligatory respect to the Italians, a victory in Rome will at least allow Ireland to keep their season alive. How they go about achieving that result will be of far more importance.
Cian Healy comes in off the pine, while Donnacha Ryan, back from a knee strain and playing out of skin this season comes straight into the starting line-up, with Iain Henderson getting an unexpected weekend off. As well as Scotland competed last weekend, Ryan’s raw edge and experience were sorely missed both in the lineout and at close combat. Healy, meanwhile, has a chance to stake a claim for a jersey once permanently his but surely, all eyes will turn to Ireland’s back row, one that may be struggling for balance.
Scotland cleaned Ireland out on the ground last weekend, aided by their understanding of Roman Poite’s complete inability to punish blatant encroachments and clear, slowing tactics. Notwithstanding Ireland’s unparalleled discipline there may be a lesson to be gleaned from this, that Ireland might benefit from illegally slowing the game down themselves sometimes.
In any event, after limited game time together it seems that the trio of CJ Stander, Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’ Brien is beginning to bear considerable resemblance to the aforementioned Irish back row in 2011 of O’ Brien, Heaslip and Stephen Ferris. It took the practical yet wildly effective tactic of quick, low tackles for the Welsh in 2011. Scotland, tweaked it and gang tackled their men but, more importantly, they dominated the contest for the ball and completely nullified Ireland’s perceived effectiveness –mea culpa– in this area.
Of course, the current trio can still dominate, indeed they will on Saturday, but on the evidence of Saturday’s shortcomings and the outstanding season Peter O’ Mahony is enjoying, Joe Schmidt simply must make space for the Munster captain on his return from injury. O’ Mahony has been one of the premier lineout operators in Europe this season and his imminent return will have the current trio, particularly CJ Stander and Jamie Heaslip on notice. Josh van der Flier, too, has been a hugely impressive performer for Ireland and the conundrum facing Schmidt is one any coach would happily suffer through.
Conor Murray won’t have particularly fond memories when he looks back on his exploits in Scotland in the winter of 2016/2017. Rather than target Murray directly last weekend, the Scottish pack spent the afternoon slowing the ball with reckless abandon, meaning the Limerick man often had to work with the dregs. There were times in the second half where he imposed himself on the game – an unfortunate slip from Robbie Henshaw denied Ireland what would have been a sublime score – but still he was far from his best.
Murray doesn’t need to tweak much, but his half-back partner, Paddy Jackson, will need to step up, quite literally, if he is to truly impose his will on the game. Of course, Jackson’s depth in the first half was largely a result of slow ball which limited his options. Nonetheless, he needs to attack the gain line and actually create some uncertainty in Italy’s defence. The line for his second-half try was superb but he seemed, along with the rest of his teammates, to fade out during the vital endgame. Jackson must avoid opting for one out passes, which Scotland saw coming a mile off, and instead bring some variation, whether through chips over the top or by bringing his wingers into the game.
It’s no coincidence that Ireland failed late on against Argentina and Scotland after mounting physically exacting comebacks. Andy Farrell wasn’t present on both those occasions for those who are already sharpening their knives. More relevant to both those defensive aberrations was the man missing, Jared Payne, whose defensive organisational skills are so key to Ireland. Still, Payne is out for the foreseeable future so, as the senior man, Robbie Henshaw will need to fill the void. Henshaw and Ringrose are the future, which is all well and good, but they’ll need to deliver almost immediately. And, if Jackson can’t bring them into the game then one feels his opportunities at out-half for Ireland will dry up in the short term.
Simon Zebo has been outstanding for Munster at the back all season and while Schmidt is extremely loyal to his veterans, it seems Ireland are missing a trick in failing to utilise the Cork man’s pace, creativity and ability to join the line as a strike runner or distributor. Zebo can’t be far off but Tiernan O’ Halloran must be wondering what he needs to do to make the twenty-three. He’s carried for more metres than anyone else in Europe this year, brings real brio when carrying into the line and has genuine pace also. Unless he’s injured, which has not been reported, his omission from the match day squad seems unfathomable.
Results elsewhere this weekend will have a considerable impact on Ireland’s designs on the championship, where two highly unlikely draws would suit just fine. In any event, Ireland can only control proceedings in Rome. Italy will be resolute for fifty minutes but the feeling is that the quality at Conor O’ Shea’s disposal does not match up to preceding Italian squads. Ireland need to steady the ship and their visit to the Stadio Olimpico provides them with the perfect opportunity to do so.
Let’s put our irrational thoughts of a crisis to one side, at least until the visit of France in two weeks’ time. Ireland to ease home. As long as the bus gets there on time, of course.
S.U.S. Prediction: Ireland by 23
Odds: Italy +23, Draw +23, Ireland -23
Tips: (i) Draw +23 @22/1
(ii) Wales +5 v England @ Evens