Ireland shrug off O'Connell blow to sink Scots
IRELAND 28 SCOTLAND 6
Published 03/02/2014 | 02:30
UP and running, but not bowling anybody over just yet, Ireland can finally turn their full focus to their Six Nations grudge match with Wales after this functional win over Scotland.
This opening fixture always felt like the undercard to Saturday's main event, but Joe Schmidt can reflect with satisfaction on a Championship debut in which his team coped with the adversity of losing their captain on the morning of the match and battled their way through a mediocre first half to show signs of life after the interval.
Unlike last year's opening-day win in Cardiff, there was little giddy talk of Grand Slams around Lansdowne Road based on this display, but it was hard to quibble with a three tries to nil win in which Ireland kept their admittedly poor opponents scoreless for 38 minutes of the second half.
The Scots on the other hand were an advertisement for the principle that you should start your best team.
All week the talk was of hanging in there and winning the final quarter, but by the time the cavalry of Richie Gray and Johnnie Beattie arrived after 57 minutes, Johnny Sexton had just nudged Ireland into an unassailable 21-6 lead.
Like last year's disastrous visit to Murrayfield, Ireland dominated the possession and territory statistics, but this time around it was the Scottish line-out that failed, while the Irish took their chances.
The back-row, while not having it all their own way, grew into the game, with Peter O'Mahony outstanding, Chris Henry strong in his own, unspectacular fashion and Jamie Heaslip everywhere.
Cian Healy brimmed with intent, while Sexton was the main threat behind the scrum, along with Rob Kearney, who was calmness personified.
The Edinburgh defeat saw Ireland make numerous breaks they couldn't finish, this time they were a tad more ruthless – especially when Sexton broke a monotonous first-half wide open with a sensational break that would ultimately lead to the opening try for Trimble.
"We didn't really have the ball or have it long enough to have any other opportunities," Schmidt said. "One of the things that would worry me most about line breaks would be to have seven and not score one.
"If you get one and get a result on the end of it, that's a little bit comforting."
At half-time, the coach readjusted and urged his team to keep the ball and go through their phases.
It worked a treat, but it was little wonder they had looked a little disjointed at the start after a difficult morning that began with Schmidt receiving news that Paul O'Connell had gone down with a chest infection.
Dan Tuohy was called up, while Iain Henderson was promoted to the bench and for an Ireland side already without Sean O'Brien, it was quite a loss to sustain.
"It is effectively a quarter, one of the best quarters, of that pack," Schmidt said. "To have those two guys come in ... Not much has been said about Chris Henry, but I thought he had a super game. He was a great foil for Jamie and allowed Jamie to carry while he was working really hard in the tight.
"Peter O'Mahony – he got at least three poaches and hung really tough on turnover balls. I thought the back-row, as a group, really complemented each other and worked hard, so between Dan and Chris they really muscled up well."
The first-half was something of a stalemate and should have been level as half-time approached had Greig Laidlaw not nudged one of his two penalty attempts off the post. He kicked the other, while Sexton landed both his two attempts as Ireland limped towards half-time with a 6-3 lead.
They did come within inches of the line with an eighth-minute line-out maul that came down over the whitewash without a Scot having collapsed it, according to referee Craig Joubert, but it was the Scottish back three who looked the more threatening for most of a dour 40 minutes.
When they did break through, O'Mahony would invariably pop up with the ball at an opportune time, thus denying his opponents any momentum.
The Scots did go close through a David Denton pick from the base of a scrum that saw a combination of Dave Kearney, Heaslip and O'Mahony bundle the No 8 into touch, but, other than that, it was a half where the scrums seemed to take an age, injuries – including a nasty one that forced Sean Maitland off with a concussion and several other ailments – broke up the momentum and, compared with the previous evening's action in Paris, it was all very pedestrian.
That was until Sexton took it upon himself to step inside the Scottish cover and race away before launching a gorgeous pass for Heaslip, who barrelled through Stuart Hogg, but was forced into touch by Max Evans as he touched down.
Tuohy stole the line-out and Scotland strayed offside. Sexton went to touch and, after carries from Heaslip, Conor Murray and Healy, the second-row managed to retain possession, despite being driven back by Alex Dunbar and the backs took over, with Luke Marshall, Sexton and Rob Kearney combining to put Trimble away in the corner.
Sexton missed the conversion as the half-time whistle sounded and Laidlaw was able to reduce the gap to five almost immediately on the resumption when Devin Toner joined a maul from the side.
Rob Kearney claimed Sexton's restart to put his team back on the front foot and O'Mahony drove Ireland forward before the Scots strayed offside once more. Again, Heaslip opted for the touchline and again he got his reward as Tuohy collected and Ireland survived the visitors' attempted sack to march over unopposed with the skipper touching down.
Sexton converted and then slotted a penalty to put daylight between the teams on 56 minutes.
Scotland brought on their big guns, but despite some impact, they were never going to haul back a 15-point lead and it was Ireland who looked the more likely to score another try to add varnish to their display.
That came when Tuohy freed his hands in Tim Swinson's tackle and found Henry who was hauled down in the '22' by Hogg. Murray fed Rob Kearney and he shrugged off a poor Alasdair Dickinson tackle and powered through Ryan Wilson's last-ditch effort to mark his 50th cap with a fine try.
His brother almost got in on the act in the last play, but Paddy Jackson's kick had bounced in touch before he touched down. It would have been a nice way to finish, but it didn't really matter. Most minds had already started to drift towards Wales.
"We're going up against a massive team," stand-in captain Heaslip said of the champions. "We want to test ourselves coming up against teams and players of that calibre, we'll give them the respect they deserve."
It should be fun.
IRELAND – R Kearney; A Trimble, B O'Driscoll (F McFadden 73), L Marshall, D Kearney; J Sexton (P Jackson 73), C Murray (I Boss 73); C Healy (J McGrath 64), R Best (S Cronin 66), M Ross (M Moore 63); D Toner (I Henderson 74), D Tuohy; P O'Mahony (T O'Donnell 66), C Henry, J Heaslip (capt).
SCOTLAND – S Hogg; S Maitland (M Evans 32), A Dunbar (M Scott 65), D Taylor, S Lamont; D Weir (C Cusiter 73); R Grant (A Dickinson 53), R Ford (P MacArthur 68), M Low (G Cross 66); T Swinson, J Hamilton (R Gray 57); R Wilson, K Brown (capt, J Beattie 57), D Denton.
Ref – C Joubert (South Africa)