Monday 23 October 2017

Electric Ireland too hot for Scots

Scotland 10 Ireland 40

Brendan Fanning at Murrayfield

On a day when Ireland started the game not just needing to win it, but to do so by 21 points just to stay alive for another few hours in the Six Nations Championship - their last three wins here were by an average of eight - they ended up making a mockery of the target.

On a crazy last day for this tournament, Ireland did more than their bit. If you consider that Ireland doubled, inside 25 minutes, their average try-scoring ratio over 80 minutes you get a flavour of what this was like. And by the end they had repeated the trick.

Ireland captain Paul O'Connell and Devin Toner during a Scotland maul
Ireland captain Paul O'Connell and Devin Toner during a Scotland maul
Sean O'Brien, Ireland, breaks through the tackle of Adam Ashe, Scotland, to score his side's second try of the game

Heading down Princes Street en route to the stadium, in glorious sunshine, Edinburgh had never looked better. And you wondered if we might be rewarded with a game to match the conditions. We were. It was fast and furious, the best by a distance of the campaign.

As is the way with these things the endgame was a number-crunching exercise. Johnny Sexton, who had such a good game and who is so important to this group, went through a horrible five-minute spell in the third quarter when he pulled two penalties in a row. At that point they needed either of them to take Wales, who had wiped Italy in Rome, out of the Championship equation. Sweaty.

His next opportunity came just after the hour mark, which he nailed to huge relief from the Irish contingent in the sell-out crowd. But by the time his replacement Ian Madigan pulled his sole shot, with time almost up, the focus had shifted to a new front: trying to steepen the incline for England against France. In the end it was a depressing exercise for the Scots - seven games now without a Six Nations win - who had gotten themselves involved in a gunfight only to discover that Ireland had a range of weapons and any amount of ammunition.

In the speed of it all, anything that looked like a crack in the door was considered a great big gap, and both sides went for it. And perhaps uniquely in the first half we were spared a series of driven lineouts from 10 metres out, the staple diet of the game nowadays.

After 25 minutes, by which point Ireland led 17-3, you wondered if the Scots would be able to live with the pace to half-time, never mind the finish line. The game was barely five minutes old when Paul O'Connell scored from close range, after a perfect midfield wrap off a scrum got Tommy Bowe away in open country.

That immediately clarified what Ireland were about. Given half a chance they would run from deep, without being daft about it. The key ingredient was the tempo, facilitated by the away team winning all the collisions.

The carrying of man of the match Sean O'Brien, and, especially in the second half, Peter O'Mahony was hugely influential. O'Brien's try on 25 minutes came off a cleverly faked lineout maul which left the home defence stranded. That move was another example of perfect shot selection by O'Connell, who picked up where he left off in Cardiff last weekend.

"We brought a lot of the good things from last week, we probably brought a few of the bad things from last week as well, but it was great," said the captain afterwards.

The scrum was excellent - a huge plus when you want to attack off every ball - and the only area of concern was the lineout, where Ireland finished the first 40 with two losses from five throws - one of them a free kick which led to Scotland's only try of the game, for Finn Russell.

It was 20-10 at the break, and immediately on the restart Ireland established that they weren't for turning. Great tempo from phase to phase gave Sexton the opportunity to make it 23-10, and on 50 minutes Jared Payne pushed them further ahead, brushing his way past really weak tackling to ground under the sticks.

After that the only issue was if Ireland's ambition might cost them in points difference. Their balance of when to go and when to hold had been very good, but they would have to survive a few heart-stopping moments. The first came a few minutes before O'Brien's second try, when a big Scottish drive in the Ireland 22 was headed for the line before they lost control.

And the second came soon after O'Brien's try. A dodgy decision by Jerome Garces, who had a good enough game, penalised Ireland for going off their feet in what looked like a positive cleanout, and ended with a referral upstairs after Stuart Hogg thought his try in Ireland's corner was good. On the playback a big tackle from Jamie Heaslip had forced a knock forward.

In a business where every point counted, that was one of the many big moments. Good value for money too.

"A lot of the guys are experienced from playing in the Heineken Cup and the Champions Cup, when you come to the last weekends and you might need a bonus point to qualify but you know it's the most dangerous thing to do, to start playing like you're trying to win it in the first minute," said O'Connell.

"We knew we had certain things to do and certain things we thought we could do that would produce results for us. It was all about focusing on that."

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