Grand Slam dream written off at first hurdle

Ireland Grand Slam dream blocked
4 February 2017; Ireland captain Rory Best following his side’s defeat in the RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Scotland and Ireland at BT Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

A tepid opening by Irish played into the hands of fired up Scots

By Phil Rice

The similarities between last Saturday’s performance from Ireland and our loss to Argentina in the last World Cup were striking. Early tries from a highly motivated opposition taking advantage of Ireland’s narrow defence and general lethargy.

We got back into the game only for the opposition to regain control late on and finish Ireland off.

Andy Farrell, Ireland’s defence coach, was deservedly lauded for his impact on the defensive performances last Autumn but he must take a share of the blame for the naivety of Ireland’s defending during those opening 30 minutes at the weekend. The defensive management of Jared Payne was sorely missed.

At times Garry Ringrose looked like a startled fawn, as Scotland’s midfield exposed Ireland’s disorganised defence. It was disappointing to see an experienced fullback of Rob Kearney’s calibre having so little influence on the defensive alignment of the backline in front of him. His own positional play was also found wanting as Stuart Hogg ripped our defence apart.

Not for the first time Keith Earl’s defence left much to be desired. He tends to ball-watch and discovers too late that he has drifted out of position.

There will be much soul-searching and harsh realities brought to light during team training this week. Ireland showed in the second half at the weekend that they are an excellent side when going forward.

I expect a much better performance from the team this week against Italy as a chastised side take the field with the coach’s harsh words ringing in their ears.

The interesting aspect of their first half performance was that Ireland demolished Scotland at scrum time but had little to show for this superiority. In the early exchanges Scotland were penalised at every scrum. To Scotland’s credit they limited the number of scrums in the match to six, which was remarkable for such a high intensity match.

4 February 2017; CJ Stander of Ireland wins possession in a lineout during the RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Scotland and Ireland at BT Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Early on Jackson kicked the penalties for position but uncharacteristically the line-out malfunctioned. Captain Rory Best must take some of the blame for this failure as his throwing-in left much to be desired.

Best was rueful after the match, “Almost everything we talked about doing, we didn’t do. We were narrow in defence, we didn’t get front-foot ball. We prepared well during the week and although we were delayed getting to the ground, everyone knew their jobs and you have to rely on your preparation.”

In contrast Scotland saw this as a vital step in the progression of their ambitions as a team. They prepared well and countered Ireland’s strengths, particularly during the first half. Their ball carriers went to ground and quickly recycled possession preventing Ireland from using the squeeze tackle which has been such an effective weapon to turnover possession in recent times.

4 February 2017; Stuart Hogg of Scotland celebrates his side’s victory at the final whistle of the RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Scotland and Ireland at BT Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Every time they spread the ball wide Ireland looked shaky. They have an exceptional back three, with the incisive running of Hogg a particular threat.

Nobody will underestimate Scotland after this showing and they will have genuine hopes of challenging for the title this year.

Joe Schmidt must question the defensive frailties of the back three he selected at the weekend. Despite his defensive short comings, Rob Kearney had an excellent offensive game. He was unlucky not to score at a time when Ireland badly needed to get back into the game. Schmidt is likely to keep his experienced fullback, but both Zebo and particularly Earls will have a nervous week wondering if they will start against Italy.

Ringrose’s inexperience was exposed at times and while he is a fine prospect he has much to learn at the highest level.

4 February 2017; Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt ahead of the RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Scotland and Ireland at BT Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Schmidt may continue with his centre partnership against Italy where their pace and attacking ability will hopefully expose Italy’s defensive structure. Italy have a dangerous midfield however and Ireland will need to tighten their defence to shut down this threat.

While the Grand Slam may be off the table Ireland still have reason to believe that they can mount a challenge for the Championship.

A winning bonus point against Italy is a must and the team ought to be very motivated after the disappointment of last weekend’s result.

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