Wednesday 12 December 2018

Neil Francis: If Ireland can close off their key weakness, our pack will batter Scotland

 

Aaron Shingler’s try exposed Ireland’s defence in their victory against Wales and they can’t afford a repeat against Scotland. Photo: PA
Aaron Shingler’s try exposed Ireland’s defence in their victory against Wales and they can’t afford a repeat against Scotland. Photo: PA
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

The sense of missed opportunity always heightens any reprieve that you get in sport. Last year in Murrayfield, Scotland put 21 points on Ireland before the men in green could even get out of the blocks. It was a somnolent and scatty first half from Ireland but they came back to lead the game 22-21.

The Scots at that stage had scored three tries, got their Santa letters answered in full and were quite happy to leave their ground as gallant losers.

On their way to a certain victory Ireland threw a few more presents out of the sleigh. Jamie Heaslip's careless scoring pass to Robbie Henshaw was interrupted by Sean Maitland. The Kilted Kiwi (not sure I can use those barbs anymore) saved Scotland again with a terrific tackle on Rob Kearney into touch on the right-hand side. Never mind victory with 20 minutes to go was a foregone conclusion and Scotland would fall over soon enough.

They are a doughty bunch the Scots and if you invite them to hang around they might just do that.

Having done the hard thing of pulling back the 21 points that they gifted Scotland, Ireland chose to rest on their laurels and did not follow through with some scores which would have been the coup de grace.

Encouraged by Ireland's charitable nature and Romain Poite's quirky refereeing, Scotland managed to jam an unlikely victory with two give-away penalty awards.

When the final whistle blew it was unfettered joy for the Scots - no sweeter is it than to win a match, then lose it and then pull it back out of the fire again.

Beating Ireland meant a huge amount to them - Ireland are regarded as a bloody good side. Sweet so, to beat them and beat them the way they had. Scotland celebrated on the pitch and later on that night - a noteworthy scalp.

Weeks later they were beaten by France and disembowelled by England in their away programme. We as Irish know the pain and powerlessness of being unable to follow up big wins.

Last Saturday - even before the final whistle blew - Scotland celebrated a famous victory. England's creeping ennui ensured that they couldn't even chase down a vital losing bonus point.

Afterwards, Gregor Townsend made sure that his players would celebrate the victory. It is a waste of a victory against England if you stay sober on the night. Gregor may have stayed off the Glenfiddich so he could think his way through the next episode of their adventure.

Being tactically and mentally prepared only matters if you have the horses to run. Scotland have a chance to unseat us but only if we don't correct a couple of things in our arsenal.

Our pack battered France, Italy and Wales in the trenches and yet we could have lost two of those matches. Time to take stock.

If you were Wazza and you summed up the game last Saturday you might not be that glum.

Think of it this way, if you only got into the Irish half for 25pc of the game and only had 30pc of the ball and yet were only three points down with 90 seconds left on the clock and you had possession in midfield and you were pressing- you surely just had to do what you had done to score two tries and the match was yours.

I have to say that Wales' strike-rate was exceptional - three tries from four chances and most of those chances were not that close to the line.

Gareth Davies' try was one of those things that happens in Test matches. The ball unexpectedly goes loose on the floor - defences freeze or fracture and space becomes available.

Davies locked on to his line of running and scored a good opportunist try - you cannot legislate for that. Aaron Shingler's try - well sin scéal eile!

I assume that Andy Farrell instructs his line to defend narrowly. The ploy being that line-speed disrupts the passing - even when the ball is passed behind the line.

The pass shouldn't ever get to the touch line. If it does, quite often it is by way of a long, cut-out pass which is risky. Wales played their flankers Shingler and Josh Navidi on the wide outside and it worked.

Young Jacob Stockdale, ironically, when he got caught in no man's land for Shingler's try was in exactly the same position when he intercepted Gareth Anscombe's laboured and unwitting pass intended for Hadleigh Parkes. Stockdale gambled - one paid off and one didn't.

I have to laugh when I watch Sky Sports. During the interminable ad breaks where so many of their ads are for online gambling companies - at the end of the ad they tell us to "gamble responsibly".

An object lesson in putting the 'moron' into oxymoron. How the hell do you gamble responsibly? Responsibility is left outside in the street when you take on odds that will beat you. The bookies even got the spread right for the Wales game.

Despite Stockdale's impressive strike-rate I can't see Joe Schmidt continuing to allow his tyro gamble on coming up out of the line or stay impossibly short to his outside centre.

Stockdale was caught in no man's land for Shingler's try - was it even a gamble or was he caught in the headlights?

Minutes later when George North got away down the right-hand side - Stockdale put in a tackle on Justin Tipuric.

He was so far out of position and his feet placement so askew that he tackled the Welsh flanker on the wrong shoulder.

Meanwhile, over on the other wing, for Steff Evans' try, what was Fergus McFadden doing coming in to take Scott Williams when Bundee Aki had him? Poor communication? System failure?

McFadden, who has looked ultra-sharp for Leinster, had a very loose quarter-hour on the pitch.

How is it that our wingers have looked vulnerable all tournament long? Teddy Thomas-itis?

Six tackles missed up to the 71st minute and then Ireland double that.

Wales had a simple plan when they got hold of the ball and sent it out the line. Short pass, short pass, pass behind the line and then a long pass to the wing. It worked every time they used it.

Their problem was that they just did not have enough of the ball. This is exactly what Scotland do, except Scotland may not be starved of the ball as much as Wales were.

Remember Scotland's tries last year, outside of their lineout sucker punch, all came from cut-out passes to the tram lines; Ireland were caught too narrow and Scotland have the pace to take advantage of that.

If Ireland's flank is exposed Scotland can win the game. Close this avenue off and Ireland's pack will batter Scotland.

There should be a restraining order on Ireland's wingers preventing them from being in the midfield when everyone knows the ball is going to the touch line.

Scotland did it against England and they know a repeat performance will more than just make it an uncomfortable afternoon.

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