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Brendan Fanning: 'Four statistics highlight just how close Ireland were to their 2018 peak'

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Andrew Conway of Ireland goes over to score his side's fourth try despite the tackle of Grant Gilchrist of Scotland during the 2019 Rugby World Cup Pool A match between Ireland and Scotland at the International Stadium in Yokohama, Japan. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Andrew Conway of Ireland goes over to score his side's fourth try despite the tackle of Grant Gilchrist of Scotland during the 2019 Rugby World Cup Pool A match between Ireland and Scotland at the International Stadium in Yokohama, Japan. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Andrew Conway of Ireland goes over to score his side's fourth try despite the tackle of Grant Gilchrist of Scotland during the 2019 Rugby World Cup Pool A match between Ireland and Scotland at the International Stadium in Yokohama, Japan. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

TV directors love moments when a cut to one of the coaching boxes tells us the story of the game. Mid-way through the first half in Yokohama, Gregor Townsend provided the required image.

Like his team, he was powerless, on the outside looking in. And then the rain came.

If you drew a line from half time at the Aviva against Wales a fortnight ago to half time in Japan you could see all the dots connected. The set-piece was a comfort blanket Ireland could use to wrap around the game and keep things cosy. When they threw it off it was to venture not very far – a couple of phases around the corner, inflict some more pain, and start again.

This is very difficult to cope with if you’re on the receiving end and underpowered. Hence Townsend’s gloomy demeanour. He needed Ireland’s lineout to look like the Trabant they had brought to Twickenham last month, the one that had sputtered and backfired and finally cut out for good. What we got here was a four-wheel drive, good for all conditions.

And when those conditions are humid and very wet then it takes some sort of collapse from the dominant team to change the picture. A sustained lapse in attitude for example would do the trick. Or a calamitous run of injuries. Neither materialised. So for Scotland, the longer it went on the more they got to think of dealing with New Zealand in the quarter-finals. Provided they can withstand the assault of Japan in the last round of pool games.

So for Ireland that means managing the journey between now and the Springboks in the quarter-final. On this evidence it will be a truly brutal confrontation. And like four years ago in England, the first and most important criterion is to go to the start line with key men fit.

To that end Joe Schmidt got further comfort from his enforced changes here. If there was an argument to be made to keep the same pack of forwards who had battered Wales two weeks ago, then so too was there a discussion around filling the hole left by Robbie Henshaw. You don’t like to see Garry Ringrose starting on the bench but if Schmidt had read out the names of Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell at 12 and 13 to face Scotland, it would have been a case of bringing a handgun to a knife fight.

Farrell was very good. In a team that started with savage intensity and never let it drop - even when the door had been shut on the Scots - the centre did a fine job. So did those around him. Ireland never missed a beat with Jack Conan replacing Peter O’Mahony, and he contributed to a stat sheet that Schmidt will post up on the wall in the team room: 12/12 out of touch; 10/10 at the set scrum; 94 per cent of tackles completed; seven penalties conceded.

It was also a healthy return to an effective kicking game, both in putting up contestable balls and those in behind the Scots’ defence, forcing them to turn, go back and start again. And that was hugely demoralising for them.

The aggregate was a level of meanness we haven’t seen from this Irish group since autumn last year. In the second half against Wales they didn’t concede a point. Over 80 minutes in Yokohama they gave Scotland no more than a penalty. That level of efficiency was unthinkable when Schmidt’s side were up or down or all over the place from Six Nations to World Cup warm-ups. He will be delighted with this bonus.

Online Editors