Tuesday 22 January 2019

Strength in depth and winning game-plan can secure the Holy Grail

The Ireland team look on. Photo: Sportsfile
The Ireland team look on. Photo: Sportsfile

Bernard Jackman

It's a sign of how far this Irish team has come that despite a 20-point win against a strong and dangerous Scotland side at the Aviva yesterday, we didn't quite reach our potential.

In his post-match interview Rory Best spoke about how championships are won by the team that improves the most from game to game and certainly that is the case for Ireland as we have built on that last-minute away win in Paris and have looked more cohesive with each passing game.

The biggest area of improvement in yesterday's victory - our 11th in a row, a remarkable feat in itself - was undoubtedly our defence and to concede only eight points to this Scotland team is a real achievement given how they play a high-risk, high-reward game. Granted, we lived dangerously at times and we certainly rode our luck at times defensively.

Gregor Townsend will have been bitterly disappointed with the skill-set of some of his higher-profile backs in particular when they had some golden 2-v-1 opportunities. To Ireland's credit, though, we put Scotland under a lot of pressure and that definitely played a part in the visitors' failure to execute skills at vital times.

We looked more comfortable in the wider channels than we did against Wales, and our defence from turnover was much better than it had been against the Italians.

Ireland had obviously decided to go for the jugular early and try and get the win and the four-try bonus that would put all the pressure on England in Paris to chase the game.

When the first kickable penalty of the match was awarded, instead of taking the three points on offer, Johnny Sexton decided to kick to the corner but unfortunately Rory Best's throw didn't connect with his target and Scotland lifted the pressure without conceding any points.

The feeling before the game was that given the way Scotland look to get quick ball to their speed men in the outside channels, there may have been opportunities for our outside backs to gamble and go for the intercept pass.

Jacob Stockdale took that opportunity in the 21st minute when he picked off a wild Peter Horne pass to run in from 55 metres untouched. That try was against the run of play but, strangely, it didn't really settle us.

Against Wales, our ball-carriers were able to get over the gain line repeatedly and our attack looked very dangerous. However, yesterday Scotland were able to slow our ruck ball down which made every phase a real physical battle and we struggled to break them down with some aggressive defence by the Scots forcing turnovers at the breakdown but also their line speed forced us into making handling errors that we normally don't make.

The key moment in the match came just before half-time when a Scotland over-throw on the 50-metre line led to Ireland getting a scrum five metres out and after two phases a lovely piece of vision by Gary Ringrose gave Stockdale a one-on-one with Blair Kinghorn and he showed great footwork to score in the corner.

That score was a massive boost mentally for Ireland who, despite not firing on all cylinders, went into the dressing room 14-3 up.

Part of the reason that we struggled in the opening half was we got caught up a little in allowing the Scots to play the game at the frantic pace they like to implement. They clearly wanted to keep the ball in play as much as possible and play to their strengths and expose the oppositions weakness.

Scotland refused to kick the ball off and give Ireland lineouts and instead kicked long. On three occasions in that first half Ireland tried to exit and managed to find touch but Scotland took quick throws and relaunched another wave of attacks.

Rob Kearney was awarded man-of-the-match but I felt the most influential player on the Irish team was Ringrose, who despite his lack of game-time had a quality 80 minutes, working intelligently with his outside backs in defence and in attack he gave us a real threat in the loose.

We have serious strength in depth when you think that we have already lost Robbie Henshaw and Chris Farrell in the centre but can bring in a player of his quality. The bench was used extensively and they all gave us impact and contributed to us being able to close out the game comfortably with the bonus point in the bag from Seán Cronin's try in the 69th minute.

We can credit our maul for two of our tries as Scotland had to put so many forwards into the defensive maul to stop Ireland's pack that Conor Murray was left with only Finn Russell to beat to score and he is a master of scoring from close range.

Before the Championship, I tipped Ireland to win but without a Grand Slam. Having seen England lose in Scotland and their stuttering performance against France, I am starting to change my mind. Although Twickenham is a real fortress I am now starting to feel our game-plan is ideal to be able to go there and win the Triple Crown and Grand Slam. I think, with the Championship already in the bag, the pressure is off to some extent.

Having the title wrapped up is great reward for our consistency and means we can go to Twickenham without all the pressure and risk of having nothing tangible to show for our hard work. A Triple Crown, Grand Slam and the opportunity to be presented the silverware in the euphoria of a win are sufficient carrots for us to dig deep once again.

Given the level of attrition that we have suffered in three tough games so far, this week will be about fine-tuning an already immaculate game-plan and getting bodies recovered.

The only weakness that we have shown has been some defensive frailities in the wider channels and England are not the team to exploit that. Their game is built on set-piece, kicking game and defence, and we have real strength in these areas. We also have depth now off the bench.

Only Rob Kearney and Rory Best were in the squad in 2009 but this team has enough experience in other positions to be able to handle the hype and expectation and, as Rory Best said post-match, get better again this week.

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