Wednesday 22 November 2017

Reality bites for Kidney as clinical Scots spoil send-off

Jonny Sexton and Brian O'Driscoll combine in the lead-up to Ireland's first try despite the close attention of Scotland's Graeme Morrison. BRENDAN MORAN / SPORTSFILE
Jonny Sexton and Brian O'Driscoll combine in the lead-up to Ireland's first try despite the close attention of Scotland's Graeme Morrison. BRENDAN MORAN / SPORTSFILE

Hugh Farrelly

DISMISSAL can be a powerful motivator. Scotland were written off going into this game (not least in these pages) on the basis that, despite being a spirited and decent outfit, they were a level below Ireland.

Such a stance was backed up by team-sheets which showed 11 players in the Irish XV who were selected for last summer's Lions tour and two (Ross Ford and Euan Murray) on the Scottish. Andy Robinson's men won because of their superior execution of a more focused gameplan and it was a victory which was fully merited -- particularly pleasing for Scottish rugby given what they had endured already in this season's championship.

Ireland lost because the twin pillars of their game -- line-out and defence -- failed them at critical junctures, because point-scoring opportunities were passed up - not helped by a succession of handling errors - and because, once again, regular blasts of the referee's whistle gave their opponents momentum.

In the post-Paris redemption exercise that brought victory over England in Twickenham, Ireland missed a solitary tackle in 100 attempts; last Saturday there were 10 failed efforts.

The Irish line-out has been imperious this season. It destroyed South Africa last November and was the bedrock of Irish ambition this championship, including Paris, where it was the only area where Ireland could claim to have outplayed the French. On Saturday, seven of their own throws went astray -- a combination of aggressive defence from Scotland and some poor throws and calls from Ireland.

Rory Best is known as one of the most consistent hookers on the professional circuit, but his radar was off against Scotland and Sean Cronin should have been given a go off the bench.

With Jerry Flannery suspended, the Connacht hooker was obviously the 'in case of emergency break glass' option should Best get injured and is considered too raw to be used as a tactical replacement.

However, given the line-out's crucial role in Ireland's strategy, conceding ball after ball on your own throw surely qualifies as an emergency and Cronin should have been given a shot.

Kidney was not slow to pull out-half Jonathan Sexton after he experienced difficulty off the tee for the third game in succession and there were no question marks over the experience of his replacement Ronan O'Gara, who slotted his kicks with customary calm.

The Sexton place-kicking issue needs to be resolved, for his game elsewhere is beyond reproach. The St Mary's man gives Ireland a physical presence in defence and attack and he played a crucial role in Ireland's opening try after 11 minutes: a wrap-around with Gordon D'Arcy and delicious show-and-go before providing the (admittedly forward) scoring pass for Brian O'Driscoll.

But Sexton's assurance in general play was in stark contrast to the indecision that assails him when he stands over the placed ball. In his last game for Leinster, Sexton knocked over kicks from all angles in the RDS, the picture of confidence and rhythm.

Richie Murphy is his kicking guru with Leinster, Mark Tainton has that job with Ireland and, however it is done, the situation needs to be rectified to further the out-half's international progression.

The scrum was targeted again. Cian Healy had a big day around the park, but had a monumental battle with Murray from which he emerged with credit, with both props earning the attention of referee Jonathan Kaplan.

John Hayes had a tougher time of it on the tight-head side. Allan Jacobsen is just the type of nuggety loose-head that causes the most trouble for the 6' 4" Hayes and there was no solid platform to work off.

The Scottish back-row also bossed the breakdown, with John Barclay giving a tremendous display of traditional open-side play at a time when that role is supposed to be being phased out by the new tackle interpretations.

Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip had quite games by their standards as the 'Killer Bs' of Barclay, Beattie and Brown did to the Irish threesome what Heaslip and Co had done to the English and Welsh.

Against England and Wales, Ireland were comfortably beaten in the possession and territory stakes, but still managed to make the most of what they had to pull off two commendable victories.

Against the Scots, Ireland had the ball two minutes longer than their opponents and spent considerably more time in opposition territory, but lost. Unless they are seeking to become rope-a-dope, counter-punch specialists -- a perilous tactic against the Tri-Nations sides and France -- Ireland need to learn how to make the most of these periods of dominance.

Just as in Paris, Ireland opened with tremendous attacking verve and looked as though they were about to rip the Scots to shreds. The backs ran with depth and ground-eating purpose, but Scotland scrambled effectively and managed to hold onto a game that could have quickly got away from them.

However, rather than be dispirited by the O'Driscoll try, the Scots responded brilliantly, with No 8 Jonny Beattie exploiting some dubious Irish tackling (Geordan Murphy's bravery was not in question when he threw his body into Beattie's path, but his technique was).

If Sexton struggled with his placed kicks, his opposite number Dan Parks -- whose game is defined by his proficiency with the boot -- was confidence itself over the tee. Eighteen points was a worthy return for the man of the match and the drop-goal he knocked over just before half-time (after Kaplan ignored a blatant Scottish knock-on) to leave it 14-7 to the Scots, was hugely significant psychologically.

When Tommy Bowe's lethal finishing skills made it 17-17 with 15 minutes to go, an Irish win looked probable, but Scotland kept coming, Parks and O'Gara swapping penalties before the Australian/Scot kicked the winning score from the left-hand touchline.

Rob Kearney, who had come on for Murphy after 26 minutes and played well from the back, was blamed for giving the penalty away afterwards, but it looked a harsh call by Kaplan. The South African -- as he had done a few minutes previously -- could have easily given it the other way as Kearney was swamped by two tacklers, but blew at the Irishman and Parks gratefully accepted the offer of a winning kick.

This was supposed to be a fond farewell to Croke Park and a fifth Triple Crown in seven seasons -- it ended in horrible anti-climax, providing an imperfect book-end to Irish rugby's Croker experience as the first match here ended in similar anti-climactic fashion with defeat to France.

Kidney did not attempt to hide his disappointment afterwards. This does not scupper his grand ambition for Ireland, but it was certainly not part of the plan.

"We got it wrong," said Kidney. "I'll take my responsibility. We're here to get results and we didn't get one.

"It's just hugely disappointing. I can't put it into words, I know I'm supposed to try. We were hoping to finish on a good note, finish off Croke Park. The supporters and the country depending on us. It's a disappointing place to be at the moment.

"But these fellahs are very resilient. It wasn't like we folded up. We made mistakes, but we made mistakes trying things," he added.

Kidney also had words of encouragement for Sexton, who showed tremendous resolve to knock over the 51st-minute penalty when it was clear that he was being replaced by O'Gara -- who was prevented joining the fray by Kaplan.

"He had a kick in extraordinary circumstances there and he came up with it," said Kidney. "He's a young player, he's learning his way. He made a great break for the try and converted it. He'll get better and better, I've always said we're lucky to have two quality out-halves."

Next up for Ireland is a clash with the Barbarians before the summer tour to New Zealand and Australia -- ideally bolstered by provincial achievement in the Heineken Cup and Magners League.

It has been a middling championship which ends with certain selection issues still unresolved -- notably at tight-head, out-half and full-back. The rapid development of youngsters Keith Earls and Healy has been a big bonus, as well as the continued excellence of Bowe, but, overall, it has been something of reality check for the 2009 Grand Slam champions.

Going into this match, Ireland were ready to reinforce their status as the best international outfit beneath the top four. Defeat puts them back in the chasing pack, a situation they will not have an opportunity to change until their summer expedition, which Scotland have rendered even more daunting.

IRELAND -- G Murphy (R Kearney 26); T Bowe, B O'Driscoll (capt), G D'Arcy, K Earls; J Sexton (R O'Gara 51), T O'Leary; C Healy, R Best, J Hayes (T Buckley 78); D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell; S Ferris, D Wallace, J Heaslip.

SCOTLAND -- H Southwell; S Lamont (S Danielli 73), N De Luca, G Morrison, M Evans; D Parks, C Cusiter (capt, M Blair 52); A Jacobsen (A Dickinson 67), R Ford (S Lawson 72), E Murray; J Hamilton (R Gray 52), A Kellock; K Brown (A Macdonald 27-35, 38-41, 51-59) J Barclay, J Beattie.

REF-- J Kaplan (South Africa).

Irish Independent

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