Friday 25 May 2018

Neil Francis: The clarity and ruthlessness of Joe Schmidt puts Ireland on a different level

Ireland players celebrate
Ireland players celebrate
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

The new Scottish Rugby revolution and the Loch Ness Monster? There is a strong suspicion that neither exists. Yesterday's Test match? In the end what really mattered was what you did with what you had and this was demonstrated in a 20-point victory.

Scotland just did not have the firepower up front to even remotely trouble Ireland and Ireland won this game without ever getting out of third gear. We await the day when Ireland change their phasers from 'Stun' to 'Kill.'

Yes, there were some nervy moments but in the back of your mind you had a strong sense that Ireland always had something in reserve. As it quite often does, the difference between Joe Schmidt's side and their opposition is bloody-minded attitude. Attitude won this Test match.

There would be no hijacking or muggings, there would be no under-performance, there would be no sucker punch or soft tries conceded. Ireland were primed and while some of their performance was fitful, they had far too many horses for a Scotland side who had their big day two weeks ago.

If ever there was a snapshot of despair and discontent, it would have been the sight of Hamish Watson coming off the pitch in the final quarter. At that stage Scotland were spent and their anaemic replacements were struggling to deal with the six-shooters who rolled off Ireland's bench. Scotland never gave up but the last half an hour was an episode of purposeless effort.

We thought Scotland would come with a little bit more danger and a greater sense of how to trouble us but it never materialised. Lots of effort and endeavour but no real intent and their pack got pole-forked the further the match went on.

The men in blue kept on making their tackles and some of their engagements at the tackle scene were reminiscent of their traditional energy at ruck time but at the end there was strategic disengagement and a sense that no matter what they did they were fighting a losing cause.

I believe Gregor Townsend's game-plan against England was based on a dare, a little bit of luck and a little bit of insight on how to beat England. The Scots went on the basis that believing your competition is stronger and better than you pushes you to better yourselves. That is what Scotland think about England and that is why they won.

Scotland think they are as good if not better than Ireland and they arrived in Dublin with the notion that they were going to win. The difference in quality between the sides will leave the Scots in depressingly familiar territory as Ireland "sent them homewards to think again".

The Six Nations Rugby Championship and indeed the southern hemisphere equivalent - the Rugby Championship - is won and lost on the quality of its coaching. Spontaneity and innovation are welcome additions but pragmatism and structure are what get you across the line. Ireland won easily yesterday because of the clarity and ruthlessness of their coach's vision.

Winning the Six Nations with a game to spare, and winning four matches in a row in this championship validates the theory that we have the best coach. Schmidt totally out-thought Scotland at the breakdown and off phase play.

That is just something the Scots were unable to deal with. Scotland's front five just were not able to get any traction or show the same sort of dynamism against a lethargic and listless England.

Grant Gilchrist is not up to this level of Test rugby. The Johnny Gray for the Lions support group has disbanded and walked off into the Dublin air last night mumbling and scratching their heads. Ireland's second-row was once again excellent and they are the standard.

Our halves were not the players of excellence that we have grown accustomed to and Johnny Sexton lost his bearings a little bit in the second half. Some of his kicking was very un-Sexton like. Overcooked and unchaste.

Murray too had his moments and generally made his pack go forward and his promptings in and around the base were generally at a higher level than anything Greg Laidlaw could muster.

When Ireland picked up their second try at the death in the first half it really did take the confidence out of the Scots - 14-3 down for all their industry and some dangerous moments left the Scots thinking that they scarcely deserved that scoreline.

The game was still there to be won. But when Conor Murray got over after 45 minutes that was pretty much it. You expected Scotland to gamble everything, play helter-skelter and hope that Ireland would run out of either puff or patience. They got one back but their skills on a good day for the type of rugby that they play broke down under pressure.

There were five passes which if they had stuck would have put Ireland in trouble but they never went to hand and Ireland "survived".

It was then that Ireland's depth of quality was produced, Henderson and especially Jordi Murphy gave excellent performances. Ireland's finishing front-row were equally excellent. Our scrum though was not as cast-iron as it had been in the first half. Scotland's bench were a long way off the standard required.

To win a Grand Slam, you need luck and Schmidt was blessed to have a player of Gary Ringrose's quality just back from the infirmary ward and seemingly match-fit and fresh to play. Ringrose was the most dangerous player on the park yesterday and Huw Jones was exposed as not the player we believed him to be.

Ringrose and his dancing feet were used really well off those split scrums in midfield. His wrap-around for Stockdale's second try gave credence to the fact that his passing skills are up there with Sexton's and his pace and nimble mind are very difficult to deal with no matter who he is up against. He will cause serious problems for England next week.

A calm and professional dispatch of tricky opponents - Ireland played without fear or mental restraint and head in to uncharted territory in Twickenham next week to capitalise on their burgeoning self-belief and momentum. Smith and Wollensky's - the centre of the world for hungry and thirsty Ireland supporters in London next weekend.

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