Wednesday 21 February 2018

Far too close for comfort

O'Gara sublime on return to side but indiscipline almost costs Irish again
Scotland 18
Ireland 21

Eoin Reddan celebrates scoring a try at Murrayfield yesterday. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Eoin Reddan celebrates scoring a try at Murrayfield yesterday. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile

Hugh Farrelly

WAY too hairy -- Sebastien Chabal/Grizzly Adams hairy -- as Ireland clung on for a three-point victory long after a limited Scotland should have been out of sight with minds turning to Cardiff in two weeks' time.

Declan Kidney's side were markedly superior to their opponents, but their penalty count (12 officially, 14 if you count two more that referee Nigel Owens allowed turn to Scottish advantage) prevented them from pulling away when they were 21-9 up with 53 minutes gone, and gave impetus to Scottish endeavour.

Some of Owens' calls seemed particularly harsh on the Irish, while Scotland only conceded four penalties of their own, but Ireland's discipline problems cannot all be put down to the referee and the penalty count very nearly proved as disastrous as it had against France.

The situation degenerated to the point that every breakdown came with an Irish novena attached as, in truth, the Scots did not look capable of scoring a try on what was a good day for Ireland defence coach Les Kiss.

There were five missed tackles but, given the amount of possession Scotland enjoyed in the second-half, that was understandable, to an extent, and the communication issue that had reared its head in the build-up was put to bed in an accomplished defensive performance.

That Ireland managed to escape with victory can be put down to their leaders stepping up to the plate when most needed.

Ronan O'Gara gave a masterful display on his return to the out-half slot, looking assured in everything he did and giving shape and focus to Ireland's attacking efforts, with every Irish score coming while he was on the pitch.

The Corkman did miss two difficult penalty kicks and fluffed one drop-out just before he was replaced by Jonathan Sexton but this was indisputably a triumphant return for the 33-year-old.

Rory Best was immense at hooker and Cian Healy and Mike Ross had big all-round games either side of him, while Brian O'Driscoll masterminded the defensive operation superbly.

Then there was Paul O'Connell. Ireland had difficulty with the height of the Scottish line-out but the second-row put in a quality performance and, with perfect timing, produced three turnovers, two on the ground and one from a line-out steal in the final minutes as the Scots pushed for victory.

Scotland had the opportunity to take the initiative with just a minute on the clock when Luke Fitzgerald failed to claim an up-and-under and Ireland strayed offside, but Ruaridh Jackson's long-range thump fell just short.

From the restart, Ireland had the put-in at the scrum with Ross and Healy putting the squeeze on and giving O'Gara perfect front-foot ball, which he dinked into the corner.

From the line-out, Ireland methodically worked up to the line and then cleverly moved it from Best to Jamie Heaslip, who took advantage of the massive gap left by Nick de Luca to trot over, with O'Gara converting for 7-0. It was clinical stuff and ominous for the home side.

O'Gara was in the zone, the scrum was well on top, the tackles were going in and Sean O'Brien was winning turnovers and generally wreaking havoc.

The problem was penalties. Ireland gave away five in the first 17 minutes and it allowed Scotland, sensibly switching kicking duties to Chris Paterson, to pull it back to 7-6.

Ireland won their first penalty after 20 minutes but O'Gara was unable to convert from 37 metres. However, an exquisite chip to the corner was a 'this is what you have been missing' statement and led to Ireland's second try.

Scotland went for the long throw only for Sean Lamont to be swallowed up by Best and, when the Irish scrum got on top again, Heaslip was able to break right, with Eoin Reddan doing wonderfully well to rip the ball and dart over under the posts.

The Scottish defence was again extremely suspect but that was not Ireland's problem and O'Gara converted for 14-6. Another penalty concession, Ireland's seventh, saw Paterson peg it back to 14-9 with an excellent kick but the Scots had little to offer in attack other than the boot of their veteran full-back.


Declan Kidney's side then clicked up a gear, producing their finest passage of play of the tournament so far with a sweeping succession of off-loads and quick ruck possession involving excellent play from Gordon D'Arcy, O'Connell, Heaslip, Healy and O'Brien, with Reddan barking the orders from behind. It seemed destined to end in try but the Scots managed to scrag O'Gara and win the relieving penalty.

O'Gara kept Ireland in position with expert game management and there was time for a flowing move involving a superb off-load from Tommy Bowe to Earls, who had a sprint up the left touchline only to be denied by a splendid cover tackle from Lamont.

A 14-9 half-time advantage did not reflect Ireland's superiority and it was obvious that if they could avoid the blasts of Owens' whistle, they would pull away.

Two scrum penalties gave Ireland the momentum on the resumption, Ross was destroying Allan Jacobsen and the Scottish prop, looking more like Jocky Wilson than a modern loose-head, was dispatched to the bin to think again.

It allowed Ireland to establish a foothold in the Scottish '22' and a nice arcing run by Reddan set up the off-load for O'Brien, who drove for the line only to be -- incorrectly -- called back for a forward pass.

It was stop-start stuff, with Owens continuing to punish the visitors, and the fractured nature suited the Scots, who attacked down the left with Max Evans' kick-through brilliantly covered by Earls.

O'Brien was rampant at this stage, a barnstorming surge to the Scottish line producing perfect ruck ball, but when a Scottish hand disrupted Reddan's ball, Owens, incredibly, refused to reach for yellow or even award the penalty.

The Irish smothered their frustration and had another go, led once again by O'Brien, who was terrifying the Scots every time he touched the ball, and the inevitable try came for a jubilant O'Gara.

His conversion pushed it out to 21-9 and you waited for the advantage to be hammered home, but Owens cracked down dubiously on the Irish a few minutes later and Paterson kicked another three to make it a nine-point game.

A spate of substitutions injected some vigour into the hosts. Dan Parks kicked for position and there was even an off-loading move, the first Scottish attacking spark denied by the Irish scramble.

But the line-out and indiscipline continued to haunt the Irish and Andy Robinson's men sniffed the uncertainty. Richie Vernon was having a big impact off the bench and, suddenly, Scottish passes were being held and their runners were tearing onto the ball and eating up ground.

Penalties were inevitable. Parks kicked one and dropped a goal playing advantage from another to bring them back to 21-18 and, unbelievably, the prospect of an Irish defeat became very real.

With O'Gara replaced by Sexton, Ireland could not get out of their half and were surviving through desperate tackles and frantic clearances, an excellent turnover by Denis Leamy stymying one particularly threatening attack.

With impeccable timing, O'Connell did his thing and Ireland survived, just. Three games down and the handling errors have been eradicated; now discipline must be addressed before Cardiff.

Three more tries and another win were the plus points, but this was too close, too nervy, with way too many penalties.

SCOTLAND -- C Paterson; N Walker (S Danielli 75), N De Luca, S Lamont, M Evans; R Jackson (D Parks 52), M Blair (R Lawson 60); A Jacobsen, R Ford (S Lawson 52), M Low (G Cross 66); R Gray, A Kellock (capt); K Brown (N Hines 66), J Barclay, J Beattie (G Cross 46-55, R Vernon 52).

IRELAND -- L Fitzgerald; T Bowe, B O'Driscoll (capt), G D'Arcy, K Earls; R O'Gara (J Sexton 67), E Reddan (P Stringer 60); C Healy, R Best (S Cronin 60), M Ross (T Court 70); D O'Callaghan (L Cullen 66), P O'Connell; S O'Brien, D Wallace (D Leamy 60), J Heaslip.

REF -- N Owens (Wales).

Irish Independent

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