Sunday 17 December 2017

Comment: Complacent Ireland were well and truly Chicagoed by fiery Scots

Shocking result means we are already playing catch-up in the race for the Six-Nations

Paddy Jackson’s try was just reward for his energetic performance. Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

We can't say they didn't warn us. Scotland sent Ireland homeward to think again. Joe Schmidt's men were well and truly Chicagoed.

In fact there was a spooky similarity with Ireland's memorable wins over the All Blacks and Australia a few months back. On both of those occasions the underdogs built up a big lead but seemed on the verge of defeat after an opposition comeback before finding a second wind and regaining the momentum in the closing stages to close the game out.

The immediate result is that, for Scotland, the rest of the Six Nations now shines with boundless and unexpected possibility. Ireland, on the other hand, are already playing catch-up. From here on in it's a salvage operation. Rather than challenging England, the mission now is to try and stay ahead of Wales and France.

Ireland will deny it now, as New Zealand denied it after their American reverse, but this was a defeat rooted in complacency. A disastrous first half showed the danger of regarding this match as the vegetable course which had to be got through before we could proceed to the dessert of France, Wales and England. Yet when Paddy Jackson converted his own try to put Ireland a point clear in the 62nd minute it seemed as though the visitors had dodged a bullet. It had been the worst of performances in the first half but the best of performances in the third quarter. A sigh of relief was general all over Ireland.

Yet even as the tide flowed in Ireland's favour the untypical lack of precision and control which had bedevilled them in the first half came back to haunt them. Chances to score the fourth try, which would have conclusively completed the comeback, were bungled and a reprieved Scotland made a rare foray into the Irish half to poach back the lead. You waited for a ferocious Irish onslaught and a kind of cross between Custer's Last Stand and the Battle of Bannockburn. Instead the denouement took place near the Irish line. Not only did we not land the knockout punch, Ireland never even got a chance to swing one.

The talk all week had been of fears that Vern Cotter's nefarious crew would target Conor Murray. Instead we targeted ourselves, particularly in a first half which brought back memories of last year's mediocre mid-table Six Nations campaign. It was as though the heroic performances against South Africa, the All Blacks and Australia had never happened. Murray bumped into Kearney, Henshaw and Ringrose got their lines crossed, the line-out was a shambles and there was a general Trump-in-the-White-House level of chaos and confusion.

In that first half the game resembled the US election itself, with one side all energy and upstart enthusiasm while the other exuded entitlement and an apparent belief that superior reputation would tell in the end. Had it not been for massive superiority in the scrum, where Scotland's decision to play an entire front row starting their first Six Nations game had the expected results, and an interception by Simon Zebo on the stroke of half-time when Scotland had an overlap near the Irish line, the game could have been over at the break. Twice in a position to drive over from line-outs, we were thwarted by accidental offside and a poor throw-in. It seemed like a performance from the bad old days - not just before Schmidt, but before Gatland.

That Ireland were a changed outfit in the second half speaks volumes for Joe Schmidt's powers of readjustment and the character of his players. CJ Stander was to the fore as Ireland rumbled through the phases and Jackson's lead try was just reward for an energetic performance, which at least means this defeat can't be blamed on the decision to ignore the claims of Ian Madigan. Yet just before that score had been a moment which seemed to epitomise the frustrations of the afternoon, Jamie Heaslip bursting through after a Conor Murray blockdown had only to find Robbie Henshaw for a certain try. Instead he found Sean Maitland. There were too many incidents like this, miscalculations and mistakes from a team normally notable for minimising the occurrence of both. The ruthlessness which top teams display when the opposition is there to be put away was missing. Scotland hung in there. You could almost see the realisation that this might be their day after all dawning upon the Caledonian faces.

Boasts that we have moved up to another level, one where the summit of the world game is now in sight, ring hollow now. We can't even complain that the rub of the green was against us - our first half try had luck stamped all over it, a long and risky Zebo pass which should have been intercepted floating through to Keith Earls. Earls' expert finish to some degree atoned for his being caught out of position for the second Scottish try, run in by the splendid Stuart Hogg, just one home player who made nonsense of the contention that any Lions places earned by our Celtic neighbours will merely be the result of some Affirmative Action programme. The mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous in Earls' performance mirrored that of the Irish team as a whole. The fireworks which we might have expected from that richly promising centre partnership fizzled out - try aside, Iain Henderson was largely peripheral, even Conor Murray's kicking was off. Yet perhaps signalling out individuals is beside the point, most players shared in the lassitude of the first half, the heroics of the third quarter and the lack of killer instinct at the end.

You can't overstate the seismic nature of this shock. This is only the second time in the entire history of the Six Nations that Scotland have won their first game of the tournament. Yet there was something familiar about it, it was the kind of guerilla victory Scotland used to specialise in when the six nations were five. It was the triumph of a team with nothing to lose over a team thinking about everything they'd already won. In that, too, it resembled Chicago, a day which now seems a very, very long time ago.

We are not as good as we thought we were. That's the hardest thing of all to swallow.

Read more here:

Dejected Ireland players, from left, Cian Healy, captain Rory Best and Jamie Heaslip leave the pitch. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Dejected Ireland players, from left, Cian Healy, captain Rory Best and Jamie Heaslip leave the pitch. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

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