Irish power blows Scotland away as Schmidt's men hit top form in World Cup opener
Ireland 27 Scotland 3
JOE SCHMIDT would have bitten your hand off for this performance and washed it down with a bowl of ramen noodles and a glass of sake.
The only thing that left a bitter taste for the Ireland head coach was the growing injury list he brings to Hamamatsu where Ireland take on Japan next Saturday.
As World Cup openers go, it was impressive stuff in front of a crowd of 63,731 at the International Stadium in Yokohama as Ireland took full control of Pool A. There was plenty of green in the stands and the party started early as the team responded to the crowd with a comprehensive win.
It was perhaps not on the level of last night’s shoot-out between New Zealand and South Africa, but it will have caught the watching Steve Hansen and, in particular, Rassie Erasmus' attention.
From their first three visits to the Scottish ’22, Ireland scored three tries in the first 25 minutes with James Ryan, Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong dotting down. The numbers on their backs tell a tale of where Ireland’s strength was drawn from early on.
Their lineout maul came out of cold storage and did all of the damage, their scrum was strong and their ruck work was good. Their defensive line-speed negated the Scottish threat and denied the opposition danger-men any access.
Although their work in the air wasn’t perfect, the back-three performed well with Jordan Larmour excellent.
But Schmidt’s will be sweating on the fitness of Johnny Sexton, Furlong, Bundee Aki and Peter O’Mahony as his side board the bullet train tomorrow.
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Sexton and Furlong both received treatment before coming off, while Aki and O’Mahony were signalled as Head Injury Assessments as they came off. If they have to go through the return to play protocols, the six-day turnaround will be tight.
Still, Chris Farrell and Jack Conan did enough to suggest they can step in and step up, while Schmidt was able to get a host of his leading men off early with the result in the bag after Andrew Conway’s bonus-point try.
Although they survived an early Sexton charge-down and a bit of frantic, loose play in a cagey opening five; Ireland made the first move with a re-assuring try that helped settle the nerves.
It came from their lineout. Iain Henderson called the ball to O’Mahony and the maul rolled forward. Rory Best peeled off on the short-side and showed good foot-work before finding Conor Murray on his shoulder.
Henderson then split Stuart McInally and Grant Gilchrist and while Murray opted to go tight with a big overlap out left, it wasn’t to matter when, a couple of phases later, James Ryan picked from the base and powered over.
Sexton converted and then sharply raced back to save his side when Sean Maitland spotted there was nobody home in the back-field. The out-half even threw in a neat side-step to beat his former Lions’ team-mate for good measure.
The back-three were holding form in the air otherwise, but it was clear where Schmidt felt his side were stronger.
Aki acted as an auxiliary openside and forced two successive turnovers, the second of which resulted in a penalty.
Sexton kicked to touch, the maul won a penalty and he again went to the lineout where, from 5m, Henderson took Best’s throw and the captain came up with the ball when the Scots had been marched back.
The out-half’s second conversion drifted off target, but the 12-point lead had taken the wind from the Scottish sails.
When Conway knocked a high ball on, they got a chance to build some momentum and after they beat the rush with some quick hands and won a penalty when Jack Conan got caught on the wrong side as he scrambled back.
Greig Laidlaw got his side off the mark and, with Aki forced off and Conway beaten in the air by Maitland, Ireland were again under pressure as Jacob Stockdale failed to deal with a relatively simple ball over his head.
But Chris Farrell forced a mistake from Finn Russell and Conway hacked on twice, before the ball hit the post and forced Stuart Hogg into a tough position, allowing Conway to drag him over the line.
They made the most of their luck with CJ Stander carrying off the back of the scrum, before Tadhg Furlong came around the corner and powered over from close-range.
This time Sexton, who looked to be struggling a little, nailed his conversion and when Larmour won a breakdown turnover the out-half kicked his side into Scottish territory once again.
Although the pre-planned move to release Josh van der Flier around the back didn’t work, the flanker recovered and when Stander picked from the base of a ruck and raced clear a fourth try was on.
This time, Ireland couldn’t convert and when their No 8 went off his feet the Scots had a chance to clear. A lineout penalty concession from Henderson gave them further impetus to attack but they were snuffed out by a brilliant defensive read from Stockdale who rushed up to deny Hogg.
From the scrum, the wing-wonder exploited the sleeping Scottish defence down the blindside and rushed into the ’22, only for Sam Johnson to scrag him back and the scrambling men in navy to counter-ruck brilliantly and win the ball back.
After a lengthy injury stoppage for Hamish Watson, whose World Cup looks over, Ireland turned the screw at scrum-time but Murray couldn’t extend his side’s lead with a long-range penalty as Sexton stood himself down from kicking duties.
That was it from an impressive first-half and when the teams returned, the heavens had opened.
Conway thought he’d scored within two minutes of the restart after a Henderson turnover, but Wayne Barnes spotted his push on Hogg.
James Ryan had to be alert to catch Maitland as he threatened to open up, while Ireland were forced to spend much of the third quarter in their own half and under pressure as they coughed up ball in their own maul to Fraser Brown and got away with it when John Barclay knocked on.
Any anxiety about the result went out the window on 55 minutes when Conway forced Ryan Wilson into spilling Murray’s box-kick, Larmour collected it and after a quick recycle Murray found his Munster team-mate waiting on the wing and he brilliantly stepped Russell and beat Grant Gilchrist to the line.
Schmidt emptied his bench with more than a quarter remaining and the result safe.
A fifth try went a-begging when Jack Carty’s chip bounced up for Chris Farrell and he found Luke McGrath on his shoulder, but Stockdale couldn’t hold the final pass with nothing but grass in front of him.
Jack Carty added a 68th minute penalty to keep the scoreboard ticking over and, while the result was long since decided, the men in green were forced to play the last 10 minutes with 14 men when Tadhg Beirne killed the ball after a Hogg break.
Niall Scannell replaced Josh van der Flier who had emptied the tank, meaning Best went the full 80 at the age of 37.
And he played his part in holding out the frustrated Scots and limiting to three points, putting their World Cup ambitions into real jeopardy.
Ireland, meanwhile, can look forward with real confidence.
IRELAND -- J Larmour; A Conway, G Ringrose, B Aki (C Farrell 22), J Stockdale; J Sexton (J Carty 58), C Murray (L McGrath 57); C Healy (D Kilcoyne 49), R Best (capt), T Furlong (A Porter 49); I Henderson (T Beirne 58), J Ryan; P O’Mahony (J Conan 27), J van der Flier (J Conan 14-22 blood, N Scannell 74), CJ Stander.
SCOTLAND – S Hogg; T Seymour (D Graham 60), D Taylor (C Harris 67), S Johnston, S Maitland; F Russell, G Laidlaw (A Price 65); A Dell (G Reid 62), S McInally (capt), WP Nel (S Berghan 53); G Gilchrist, J Gray; (S Cummings 65) J Barclay (B Thompson 53), H Watson (F Brown 38), R Wilson.
Ref -- W Barnes (England)