Sunday 17 December 2017

Neil Francis: Losing to an inferior side will really hurt Joe Schmidt and Ireland

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

In that famous World Cup quarter-final in 1991 our bus driver decided to go the scenic route to Lansdowne Road and we arrived 45 minutes before kick-off. I did not even get a chance to walk the pitch as there was so little time to get ready.

We led the eventual world champions in regular time and everybody knows what happened at the endgame. I have often wondered, would we have got thrashed if we had turned up with plenty of time? Maybe we would have rationalised the likely outcome of the game. Ireland arrived about 20 minutes behind schedule for the kick-off yesterday. Do we put the loss down to the bus driver?

The key to the start of a championship, particularly when you are playing away from home, is how you start. More so when you are playing against a Scottish side who find nourishment and encouragement when superior sides arrive and don't live up to their billing. I for one was greatly encouraged by Ireland's start - it was almost as if it had been scripted, and I expected Ireland to follow the forecasts even if the meteorological forecasts hadn't come to pass. The conditions were set fair and rugby could actually be played.

Ireland minced Scotland in the first two scrums and got penalties which put them in good field position and a really good frame of mind. Murrayfield went silent and the Scots feared a long afternoon of torture in this phase. It must be a world record - there were only six scrums in the entire game, and unless Ireland wanted to knock the ball on on purpose so that Romain Poite would have to award a scrum, then this tactic and this area was going to be of very little relevance in this game. Our magnificent scrum was like chimneys in summertime.

Ireland were caught cold in the first 40. Anybody watching the match would have recognised that. The question is, why were they so far off where they needed to be to contest and to take advantage of their obvious superiority?

Let's be clear - this is a reasonably good Scottish side but it is still a Scottish side and Ireland have beaten them in their sleep over the last 17 years. Signal your dominance in the scrum from early on, close down space, play territory and give Scotland nothing and the game will go your way.

Sometimes, half-time is a blessing and Ireland figured out what they had to do defensively in the second half and they ceded no more easy tries. But what were they thinking in the first half? Scotland knew and did their video analysis well and both of their wingers stood one inch from the touchline every time the ball was in play; Stuart Hogg, their dangerous full-back, also stood in the tramlines.

They had looked back over Ireland's November and a little bit further. Andy Farrell wasn't on board in the 2015 World Cup but the Scots borrowed from what the Argentines did and packed their wingers and outfield runners as wide as they could.

Ireland not only defended in narrow channels but also they just could not slow up Scottish ball in the first 30 minutes, and the Scottish placement and presentation of the ball let them run on to it, and you could see how all the Irish outfield backs had to change their running angles on the line as they got outflanked. Can you attribute our lack of line-speed and narrowness to the bus driver?

The roar that went around Murrayfield when Hogg scored was one of surprise rather than one of triumph. Jesus: we caught them cold! Twice!

And so mentally Scotland were thinking to themselves 'we are in this game and we can beat the Irish' and they fed off this. Scotland won this game because their line-speed was aggressive and consistent. Yes, they were offside all day but you get away with it if you come up in the line together. Ireland should have been able to adapt to this because it happens every two years. Scotland wouldn't know what a hindmost foot was even if it kicked them in the ass.

Scotland were also a touch smarter at the breakdown and apart from surreptitiously slowing it down, managed to nick some crucial turnovers at vital times because Ireland didn't look after the ball well enough and had too much misplaced confidence about our stellar ball carriers who went one off without the requisite levels of reinforcements who arrived a half-second late.

Ireland's passing wasn't up to its usual standard and we took the ball too far behind the gain-line to cause any trouble for the Scots. Playing behind the gain-line works only if the quality of the passing is good. Johnny Sexton may have caused problems himself for the Scottish line but here too Paddy Jackson took on a bit of ball himself and had a decent game.

We can often accuse Scotland of failing to close out games, games that they have done enough to win, and yesterday looked like it was going to be one of those games where their enthusiasm and brio would fall flat and they turned from jackals to jackasses. The Scots were given assistance when they should have been overwhelmed. When Ireland took the lead again they reminded me a little bit of Leinster's looseness in Castres - four or five gilt-edged opportunities in the last quarter and none taken. Conor Murray's pick-up and transfer to Jamie Heaslip should have been a try. You always, when you line-break, try to keep the move alive.

If Heaslip had just held on to the ball on this occasion it would have been certain that Scots would have conceded to save their line. Sean O'Brien could have done better with his break although nobody got close to support him. Rob Kearney's break down the right-hand touchline was a chance, but Sean Maitland's tackle was very sure.

Even though Ireland pushed they lacked the manifest will and stark determination which personifies Joe Schmidt's teams when they can put an opponent away. If Ireland had scored again when they took the lead, Scotland would have caved but the result was still open and unforced errors and silly mistakes gave the hosts renewed hope when their confidence seemed to be at a low ebb; they were out on their feet and yet they managed to sneak the result.

Ireland, despite their failings yesterday, are a far superior side to Scotland and this result will really hurt because it was there for them. The result of this match was promised to nobody and Scotland were still alive to take advantage of Ireland's charity. This one will hurt for a long time.

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