Tuesday 19 February 2019

Neil Francis: 'Performance of substance promises further progress'

Conor Murray dives over to score Ireland’s opening try against Scotland. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Conor Murray dives over to score Ireland’s opening try against Scotland. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Atonement of sorts. Ireland weren't suffering from the same stifling torpor that afflicted them in the big match last week and they did what they had to do, but they were negligently imprecise and could have won this game by a big score had their accuracy been better.

In this instance accuracy was underpinned by confidence and you could see through many stages of the game yesterday that Ireland's confidence levels were low, but not low enough to prevent them taking a stranglehold over a very poor Scottish side and pushing themselves on the road to redemption.

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Sometimes when you are out on the pitch as opposed to being in the stand it is very hard to gauge the conditions and a blustery wind and a slippery ball did not help things.

This was, though, a very poor quality game. Even taking the conditions into account, the number of unforced errors was unacceptably high. The last moment of the game encapsulated how loose things were. Scotland could not buy a scrum all game and yet Ireland did not press home fully their advantage here.

The game was 40 seconds into the red when Conor Murray fed the scrum. Seán Cronin's heel was ok and the ball came back from a slowly wheeling scrum to Jack Conan's feet. When you are looking for an exit in this instance you do not try and control the ball at the base of the scrum, you pick it and you get help, even from your scrumhalf, to retain the ball. John Cooney tried to do the No 8's job for him and got caught and the ball was turned over. Ireland had to expend another minute of energy before Scotland inevitably made another mistake and that signalled the end of the game.

That sort of looseness, giving Scotland an opportunity to garner a bonus point which they scarcely deserved, told you that Ireland were quite happy to get out with just a win. There was a try bonus point on offer all the way through the second half once Ireland had crossed for a third, but once again - as they were against England - the men in green were troubled by a suffocating defence and a defensive line magnificently led by Finn Russell which caused Ireland all sorts of problems and saw their skill levels let them down under pressure.

Scotland had obviously pored over England's blueprint and they played again with an edge which bordered on the illegal, particularly when it came to dealing with Ireland's most influential player, Johnny Sexton. Had Gregor Townsend morphed into Conor McGregor Townsend? It is incredible that Scotland only conceded seven penalties. There was one maul in the 70th minute when Ireland were playing down the clock and squeezing the life out of Scotland in their own 22.

This must have been the most illegal maul in history and even though it only lasted about a minute, Scotland managed to give away at least seven penalties in that phase - all without sanction - and eventually Ireland turned the ball over in a morass of bodies. Scotland's back-row did not just live offside all day long, they lived on our side of the ruck.

Ireland had a bag load of unwanted slow ball and it is very difficult to get something going if the referee does nothing. The Scottish forwards just lay on the wrong side of the ruck. You can't ruck them out of the breakdown anymore and Scotland long ago realised that Ireland are mortal without quick ball.

All the commentators and pundits say Murrayfield is a tough place to come and play and that is because Scotland get away with murder on the gainline and at ruck time there. I'd question whether either Josh Strauss or Rob Harley even know the rules of the game.

Scotland, though, when it came to it, made an awful lot of unforced errors, particularly at key moments in the second half. The problem with thumping Italy in the first game of the season is that it may give you ideas that you are better than you really are. Scotland will struggle for the rest of the Championship and you would figure that England, France and Wales will beat them handy.

Ireland are not going to win this Championship because I feel that England will take care of Wales in Cardiff and they will have far too many bonus points in the bank. But Ireland gave a performance of substance and a week of self appraisal jump-started their season.

They will get some of their better players back for the French and Welsh games and they will improve all the way to the end.

Once again, despite their last scrum of the game, Ireland were very good in the tight. They were happy not to take full advantage of their scrum superiority for penalties and yesterday they won 11 from 11 from lineout play. An incredible statistic here - Quinn Roux being lauded for calling the lineout but not actually catching a single ball all day.

Ultan Dillane looked very lively when he came on and he picked off a crucial lineout at the very end of the game and you would suspect that he will start against the Italians. The tackle counts as promised were Jonny Gray 25, Grant Gilchrist 24, James Ryan 15 and Quinn Roux 9.

Ireland's midfield did not function smoothly and we wait for some fluent passing in this area. Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw will both be available for the Italian game and it is important that our back-line gets a little bit more fluency. This is how we are going to beat the French.

Ireland's halves are still misfiring and Murray yet again just does not look right. I wonder whether the citing commissioner will have a look at some of the hits on Sexton. Coaching tickets are now encouraging their players to follow through on their tackles on Sexton and they all seem to get away with it. The ball is gone and the tackle is definitely late but they can protest that they were committed - that is the way it is at this level and I'm certain that Sexton will not play in Rome. Carbery will get another chance.

In fairness to Carbery, to recover psychologically from his intercept pass showed resilience and strength of character when sometimes it's easier to retreat into yourself - a sure sign that he is a superior player. His ability to jump out of the tackle and pass at full pace off his left hand for Earls' try showed how high his skill quotient is.

Ireland's back three recovered themselves from last Saturday and Kearney was very good on the day. As a unit, they were vastly superior to the much-vaunted Scottish back three and once again Stockdale's brio and exuberance paved the way for a brilliant second try, one which set the Scots' minds racing with doubt.

A very creditable if loose performance - Ireland most assuredly will be far better by the time they get to Cardiff.

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