Thursday 20 July 2017

Bernard Jackman: Lack of an openside flanker hurt us and Peter O'Mahony's loss was evident

Dejected Ireland players, from left, Cian Healy, captain Rory Best and Jamie Heaslip leave the pitch. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Dejected Ireland players, from left, Cian Healy, captain Rory Best and Jamie Heaslip leave the pitch. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Bernard Jackman

Entertaining, exhilarating, end to end - these are words that I wasn't expecting to use when I thought about how Ireland and Scotland was going to play out at Murrayfield yesterday. But it's the game we got and I'm not going to complain about being taken by surprise.

It wasn't a typical Ireland under Joe Schmidt performance; in fact it was uncharacteristic. There were moments when I was wondering where the Ireland team that had taken such huge scalps only a few months ago had disappeared to. And then other times when I felt there was no way they were going to lose the game. The steadiness and predictability that I've come to associate with this Ireland team just wasn't there.

They got a foothold in the game in the second half, but it was in the first 40 minutes that the team's flaws were exposed by a Scotland side who had plenty of homework done. Ireland have had the upper hand over Scotland since Eddie O'Sullivan took the reins, but there was a time when Murrayfield used to be a graveyard for us. And those memories came flooding back as Scotland went over the try-line three times in quick succession.

Vern Cotter has put a lot of structure in his team, but the way they played the first half was like the days of Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer. There was huge intensity, pressure at the defensive ruck and body height and aggression at the attacking ruck. This meant that Scotland were playing off lightning-quick ball.

Defensively, you can question our line-speed, but line-speed comes from having slowed the opposition ruck ball down and giving your defence time to get set, as well as having good spacing. We were narrow in defence and I'm sure, given that Scotland play with a lot of width, that they wouldn't have tactically planned that pre-match.

We simply just couldn't get a man into the Scottish ruck who was accurate enough at slowing the ball down. The Ireland manager revealed that the team bus was late arriving to the stadium and for the first 40 minutes, Ireland played like they were late to the plays on the pitch.

They played without an openside and that was part of the problem. If you look at the Scots, it was like every one of their players had a little number 7 on their backs. They all did a super job slowing Ireland's ball down and winning key turnovers. While Schmidt's men were initially completely dominant at scrum time, their lineout was not as secure as it needed to be and they lost some crucial balls.

Ireland's lineout was always a well-oiled machine, a source of quality ball for the backs, and it often resulted in tries through lineout mauls. During the Six Nations in 2014, Ireland were the best team at the lineout, with a success rate of 93.3 per cent. But last season, they had statistically the worst lineout in the competition, at just 84.6 percent. What's changed? Obviously Paul O'Connell no longer calls and Devin Toner is our lineout captain. Rory Best will be criticised, but I don't think that he is at fault. I think the fact that Peter O'Mahony was not involved yesterday and for last year's tournament is a factor.

Peter has many great qualities and one of them is that he is one of the best back-row lineout options in the game. Ireland were an easy team to read yesterday and I'm sure Simon Easterby will strip it right back to the core roles this week, to make sure that the team bring real precision in this area for the rest of the tournament.

The problem with a lineout that is lacking fluidity is that your own forwards can start to doubt themselves and sometimes call the simple options. Also, the opposition decide to gamble more and put more bodies in the air. They risk the fact that if they don't disrupt, then Ireland will launch an attack easier. There was plenty to work on at half-time and Schmidt lit a fire under his side. Ireland went back to playing their usual game. They played more direct, on the gain-line and their smart kicking game returned. The strong part of Ireland's game under Schmidt is their ability to look after the ball and build phases, and when they executed that tactic, they scored tries.

Scotland deserve a lot of credit, they have learned from previous near-misses, like against Australia at the World Cup in 2015 and again back in the autumn. Yesterday, they showed great composure to finish the game out and that's real progress.

Ireland's defeat is undoubtedly an opportunity lost for a team packed with talent, but if anyone can turn it into a gain it's Schmidt. The Championship is still there to be won and for Ireland, that's the end goal.

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