Impressive display sets up Ireland for big Six Nations finish
GIVEN all the challenges and disruptions they have had to contend with in this championship, this is turning into a pretty decent Six Nations for Ireland.
Wales may be going for the Grand Slam next weekend but Ireland have scored more tries and carry a better points difference into the final weekend and while injuries have forced his hand to an extent, Declan Kidney has also been able to give younger players a go and expand his options.
He has also overseen a steady improvement in performance as the tournament has progressed. Now he needs to round it off with a win in Twickenham.
That task became a lot more difficult following England's excellent victory in Paris yesterday.
Their team may have had a 'journeyman' feel to it at the start of the championship and be reliant on a clutch of players whose 'Englishness' is dubious in the extreme but they have grown into the championship and are playing with belief and verve.
The upside is that they will be talked up all week and Stuart Lancaster has a major task on his hand to keep a lid on the exultation and fawning adulation that will descend upon his camp following their landmark achievement yesterday.
They will command the majority of attention this week, which works in Kidney's favour as he nurses his battered squad towards one last hurrah.
The coach deserves a lot of credit for the manner in which he has dealt with everything flung his way in this championship and although England's brio in Paris will command greater focus, Kidney can reflect on a job clinically done on Saturday.
It has to be said that Scotland gave their poorest performance of the tournament in Dublin, emphasised by the fact that second-row Richie Gray was their most dangerous attacker, but there is also the fact that Ireland did not allow them to perform.
Their defence was excellent once again, deliberately alternating between blitz and a shadowing approach. When Ireland stood off it allowed the Scots to build momentum but Kidney explained that it is not practical to use the rush defence all the time.
"It's easy to talk about line-speed but if you have five defenders and they have 10 attackers there's not much point in having line-speed there because they'll just outflank you," he said.
"A bit like our attack, we're going to have to think our way through it. We're going to need to play smart over the coming years in Irish rugby."
Playing smart against England should see the blitz dominate because Lancaster's side are far more threatening in the backline than Scotland and Ireland will also seek to recreate the intensity and set-piece work from Saturday that backboned their best moments against Scotland.
Their four tries were well executed and the leadership void in the absence of Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell was superbly filled by Rory Best, who played through the pain of damaged ribs for 53 minutes.
When he instructed Jonathan Sexton to kick for the corner rather than the posts when Ireland were 6-0 behind after 13 minutes and then rounded off a slick line-out move by crashing through Mike Blair for the first try, he had arrived as an international leader.
This will strengthen his command for a difficult assignment next weekend and, bar Sean O'Brien coming back into the mix, we can expect minimal changes to the side this week.
However, one change that looks increasingly logical is playing Sexton and Ronan O'Gara from the start. For the last half an hour, after O'Gara replaced Gordon D'Arcy and took over the captaincy duties from the departed Best, the pair worked beautifully in tandem and, though he obviously prefers to play in his favoured position of 10, Sexton makes a hell of a centre.
They have now had considerable time together going back to the World Cup warm-ups in August and Kidney acknowledged that the partnership worked well once again but also made it clear that it is unlikely to be something he will look at from the start, particularly as D'Arcy is having a decent championship.
"Well, talk to Darce. Jonny and Ronan have been playing very well together but Gordon is playing very well too," said Kidney. "There's what you'd like to do and what needs to be done. There's never any problem picking a guy. The problem is who do you leave out?"
From Michael Lynagh and Mark Ella on the 1984 Wallabies side to John Rutherford and Ollie Campbell on the 1983 Lions tour, if you get the right combination, playing two out-halves together can work extremely well but it seems as though it will remain an option rather than a starting point for now.
Plus, Sexton is playing very well, producing another authoritative display on Saturday, typified by some excellent place-kicking. Stephen Ferris and Rob Kearney continue to stand out as world-class performers, while Keith Earls and Cian Healy were excellent throughout.
Peter O'Mahony and Donnacha Ryan also had big games, with Ryan handling his line-out responsibilities superbly and O'Mahony has made a strong argument for retention even if O'Brien comes back into the picture -- as he is expected to -- which opens the possibility of switching the Leinster man to No 8.
It was not all positives, there was a tendency to run diagonally on occasions, which cut down space for attacking moves and there were 14 penalties conceded which will warrant analysis this week.
But overall, this was a comprehensive victory against a Scotland side that arrived confident of victory and the only pity is that it is Wales not Ireland who are chasing a Grand Slam next weekend.
From the contentious decisions in the opening loss to Wales to the injury complications and agony of missed opportunity in Paris, things have not been easy for Ireland in this championship and Kidney revealed that he had a meeting last week with referee's chief Paddy O'Brien, who agreed that Ireland had been harshly done on some key penalties in Paris.
"It was important because sometimes a team can get a reputation for doing stuff wrong and we weren't doing it wrong," said Kidney. "I'd have no problem in life putting my hand up when we get something wrong but we've been quite legal and we just didn't want those penalties that were going against us to keep coming."
Frustrating but nothing can be done about that now. The key now is to round off a tumultuous campaign with a victory. It will not come easy but, for all the new-found confidence sweeping through England, Kidney has the squad to burst that bubble and doing it on St Patrick's Day would make it all the sweeter.
IRELAND -- R Kearney (F McFadden 73); T Bowe, K Earls, G D'Arcy (R O'Gara 53), A Trimble; J Sexton, E Reddan (T O'Leary 53); C Healy (T Court 50-58), R Best (capt) (S Cronin 53), M Ross (T Court 77); D O'Callaghan (M McCarthy 78), D Ryan; S Ferris, P O'Mahony (S Jennings 62), J Heaslip.
SCOTLAND -- S Hogg; L Jones (M Scott 62), M Evans, G Morrison, S Lamont; G Laidlaw (R Jackson 56), M Blair (C Cusiter 49); A Jacobsen, R Ford, G Cross (E Murray 46); R Gray, J Hamilton (A Kellock 59); J Barclay, R Rennie (R Vernon 58), D Denton.
REF -- C Pollock (New Zealand)