McLaughlin has much to offer line-out
ANOTHER curate's-egg performance from Declan Kidney's Ireland. Three more tries to add to three scored against France and Brian O'Driscoll's effort in Rome constitutes a pretty healthy statistic and evidence of the successful implementation of their expansive game plan.
However, as in the first two games, there are significant caveats. Against Italy and France, Ireland had problems with their high error rate and difficulties with the referees and yesterday, while the handling was improved, indiscipline very nearly proved disastrous.
Ireland should have won this game pulling up. Scotland are extremely limited and should have been put to the sword when Ireland were 21-9 ahead with 53 minutes on the clock.
That they didn't can be put solely down to discipline, or lack of it, and the substitutions, notably of Ronan O'Gara, that killed momentum and game management. Some of Nigel Owens' decisions seemed questionable, to say the least, but as O'Driscoll pointed out, the players also have to look at themselves.
Penalties overshadowed everything yesterday but, if that aspect can be set aside for a moment, there were elements to Ireland's performance that were very positive and the team is starting to look solid in key areas.
Ireland now have a scrum to be reckoned with and the performance of the front-row yesterday, in the scrum and around the park, was high quality. The defence was impressive also, even allowing for Scotland's attacking deficiencies, and Ireland were threatening on the ball, with Keith Earls having one of his finest games in green on the left wing.
The game's dominant personality was O'Gara who made his point forcibly that he should be the man at No 10. It was instructive that Ireland did not score again after he exited the stage and that Ireland struggled to see off the Scots in his absence, with Jonathan Sexton failing to find touch at critical junctures in a nervy finale.
That being said, the line-out was the one area where Scotland were superior and the issue of a third option is still a live one. On that basis, it could be argued that Sexton finding touch was not the best option but it would have helped to stall Scottish momentum.
So, what changes for the trip to Cardiff in two weeks? Well, no Irish player performed poorly and continuity is desirable for the tricky assignment against Wales. Luke Fitzgerald again looked less than secure under the high ball while he was not a key figure in attack. However, opting for the safer hands of Gavin Duffy would be a radical move given Fitzgerald's quality, so change is unlikely but a dominant performance by the full-back in Cardiff would make the absence of Rob Kearney and Geordan Murphy feel less acute.
The only strategic change would be to introduce an assured third option to the line-out. This would be harsh on a back-row that has performed very well in the three Six Nations outings but Kevin McLaughlin has the ability, height and now the games under his belt with Leinster, to solve this problem.
HUGH FARRELLY'S IRELAND TEAM TO FACE WALES -- L Fitzgerald; T Bowe, B O'Driscoll (capt), G D'Arcy, K Earls; R O'Gara, E Reddan; C Healy, R Best, M Ross; D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell; K McLaughlin, D Wallace, J Heaslip.