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Andy Farrell's Ireland were narrowly the best of a very bad lot

Neil Francis


JJosh van der Flier and CJ Stander of Ireland celebrate winning a turnover penalty

JJosh van der Flier and CJ Stander of Ireland celebrate winning a turnover penalty


JJosh van der Flier and CJ Stander of Ireland celebrate winning a turnover penalty

The press box had a minor Japanese invasion on Saturday, as at least a dozen representatives from television stations in that country were over to cover the game — a follow-on from the phenomenal success of the World Cup.

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Johnny Sexton starred on his first outing as permanent Ireland captain, scoring every point in a tense victory over Scotland with a try and four penalties. It comes as he returns to play after weeks of recovery from a knee injury.

The irony was lost on nobody that both teams on view were beaten by Japan in the pool stages of the World Cup. Easily beaten.

The Brave Blossoms are novices at this game. They have to play union as it is supposed to be played. They are therefore students of the fundamentals of the game. You have to observe the basics before you do anything else. The number one fundamental of the game when you intend to throw the ball around is to be in receipt of quick ball.

If you do not have quick ball, just kick it in the air. Both Ireland and Scotland tried to fling the ball about, but if five per cent of the ball that came from the ruck could qualify as quick ball, that was it. That is why there was only one try yesterday.

It was a dreadful game of rugby and the Japanese who came a great distance probably wondered to themselves, 'why are we covering this crap?'

Head Coach Gregor Townsend and Captain Stuart Hogg hold a press conference at Aviva Stadium in Dublin following a loss against Ireland in the Six Nations Championship.

Not only were the Irish and the Scots dreadful, the French referee, Mathieu Raynal, gave a performance so lacking in empathy that the sell-out crowd would be forgiven for asking for some of their money back. It was a justifiable crib.

In fairness to Scotland, their pack put up a good performance. They were far more aggressive and cussed than we have seen them in a while and they did not take a backward step. This was back-boned by a performance which was a corruption of the laws of the game — grand theft auto and what other transgressions you would like to throw into that mix.

You could sense Ireland's frustration as they had half a dozen chances to put space between them and the Scots in promising attacking positions deep in the 22. You can tell that Scotland are a second division side because when they gave away penalties there was no sense of cynicism about them.

You would have to wonder whether Jamie Ritchie, in particular, actually knows the rules of the game. How Ritchie and some of his colleagues stayed on the park was a mystery. The truth is, in a low-grade match like this, Scotland played the referee with greater clarity than Ireland ever could and Raynal let them away with it all afternoon.

A 19-12 scoreline with only one try in it told you everything about this match. It was like a bad Hollywood western. Lots of whooping and hollering but no quality and all the lead actors fluffed their lines.

Scotland lost with good grace and humility, but they knew this was one they could nick. Once the Scots managed to stay close into the last quarter, anything could happen. Anything did happen. You get the feeling that if Finn Russell had been playing Ireland would have been stretched out wide.

The Irish defence read Adam Hastings quite well and were quite happy and confident that they could deal with anything out wide. If Russell had been playing, though, Ireland would have had to check inside to deal with his threat. On those couple of occasions where Scotland, particularly in the last few minutes, should and could have got over the line, they didn't quite manage it because the Irish defence had an extra yard that they wouldn't have had if Russell had been playing.

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Let's go back to basics. You expect your senior players will do all the right things at the right time. Most 12-year-olds are told that in tight corridors, even with good peripheral vision, you dive to the ground once you get over the line.

It was hard to gauge from Stuart Hogg's eyes what exactly was going through his head at the time the ball got over the line. There seemed to be a little bit of detachment because try scoring is an instinctive thing.

Dropping that ball is the worst mistake on a rugby field at this level that I have seen in a quarter of a century and it would not be unfair to say that it cost Scotland a chance at the game. Ireland, despite being just about the better team on the day, would not have been guaranteed the chance to go back down and worm their way out of the predicament they had got themselves into.

Let us just remind ourselves that this is still Joe Schmidt's team. You cannot be coached by one man for six years and then disregard everything you have learned — all his systems and his ethos — in the space of a two-week camp. The team cannot re-imagine everything and they looked less fluid and less certain than I expected them to be.

Let me state this too: I don't think Andy Farrell is a visionary, nor is he an improviser, nor would he be anywhere near to being smarter than Schmidt. The unspoken sentiment here is that Ireland are going to struggle in this year's Six Nations championship. The Welsh have the fire-power and the fluency to unhinge Ireland next Saturday.

You would also wonder where the scope for improvement is. Ireland did manage to win this game, which was always going to be a tricky encounter, but all the good news from the opening round match is qualified praise.

The village fiddlers were on display at the Aviva. Paganini is due to perform in Paris on Sunday and I have a feeling that the English and the French and quite possibly the Welsh will have too much for an Irish side that is only capable of playing middle-of-the-road rugby. White lines and roadkill.

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