Tuesday 12 December 2017

Dispelling the feelbad factor in life-or-death dead rubber

Ireland's Jamie Heaslip is tackled by Scotland's Duncan Taylor. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Ireland's Jamie Heaslip is tackled by Scotland's Duncan Taylor. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

For a game that didn't matter, this was a pretty important one for Ireland. Securing third place in the Six Nations wasn't the point, preventing the season from being seen as an unmitigated disaster was. So this game can be marked down as 'mission accomplished.' The season as a whole? That was more like 'a bit done, a lot more to do.'

Churlishness has not been in short supply when commenting on Ireland's performances this season so there's no point in adding to the pile. This was a significant victory. Scotland are a team on the up, their victory over France showed that and so did their ability to get within a converted try of both Wales and England. If Ireland really were a team in decline, our visitors were the ideal team to prove it.

Instead Joe Schmidt's team finished with a mild flourish. The most important thing about this win is that it should restore some of the old optimism to Irish rugby. Ireland, like Victoria Pendleton in the Foxhunters Chase, did their most impressive work in the closing stages. There was an energy and vigour on display which made you think that next season's Six Nations can't come soon enough. And who felt like that a few weeks back?

We were aided by a Scottish performance which was an uncanny simulacrum of the fare served up by Ireland at Twickenham, alternately inspirational and awful, somehow always lacking the rigour necessary for top-class international rugby. Ireland, on the other hand, put the kicks where they needed to go, didn't lose the lineouts in opposition territory, took the right option and eschewed the kind of indiscipline which ultimately cost Scotland the game, given that Ireland scored three tries when the visitors had been temporarily reduced to 14 men.

You could only be pleased for a trio of players who've shone like diamonds among the general murk of the past couple of months. Jamie Heaslip and CJ Stander are polar opposites in terms of international experience but both left it all on the pitch throughout the Six Nations. Shorn of the company of Peter O'Mahony and Sean O'Brien, Heaslip rose to the challenge and almost unnoticed had one of his finest championship seasons. His burst and expert offload to send Devin Toner in for the final Irish try was a fitting coda to a campaign well fought.

But it's Stander who has to be regarded as Ireland's player of the championship. The South African import set the tone early in the game with the same kind of electrifying start he'd produced against Wales, carrying eight times in the first 12 minutes.

His input didn't dip much. That spectacular dive over the top for Ireland's second try which stirred memories of LA Raiders star Marcus Allen's NFL heyday was pretty impressive. But so was the fact that Stander had won the lineout leading up to it. This man can do anything. In fact we were so dependent on him this year it might be prudent to quell the whining about England's use of Billy Vunipola.

Our star back of the Six Nations has been Conor Murray, who bagged his third try of the campaign yesterday and was a constant threat to the Scots. He must, however, have had a sour taste in his mouth after a loose box-kick gave Stuart Hogg the chance to run back a spectacular try in the first half. Ireland, having utterly dominated, suddenly found themselves 10-9 down.

The team could have been forgiven for wondering if this was just one of these championships. Instead they showed exemplary character to hit back with two tries in the following ten minutes, even if the Keith Earls try involved Scottish defending which combined the Keystone Kops with the Question of Sport 'What Happened Next' sequence.

So farewell then Six Nations Championship of 2016. It was an unsatisfactory one for Ireland, the failure to punish the worst French team in living memory when they were on the ropes in Paris being the low point. But it wasn't the catastrophe it's been portrayed as either. An injury list of biblical proportions has to be taken into consideration even if it was largely ignored by those determined to perpetuate the feelbad factor which followed the World Cup.

A tour of South Africa and two meetings with the All Blacks await. That's the kind of itinerary which can make or break a team. I think we'll be OK.

Let's see if Eddie Jones is smiling quite so smugly one year from now.

Sunday Indo Sport

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