Saturday 23 February 2019

Sexton set for Roman holiday as Ireland grind out victory

Scotland 13 Ireland 22

Johnny Sexton is helped to his feet by Peter O’Mahony after receiving ‘a bit of a stamp on the head’ at Murrayfield. Photo: Brendan Moran
Johnny Sexton is helped to his feet by Peter O’Mahony after receiving ‘a bit of a stamp on the head’ at Murrayfield. Photo: Brendan Moran
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

In an Edinburgh day when the weather wasn't too sure what it was doing, lurching from winter to spring in a matter of minutes before the game, we trooped up to Murrayfield to see if Ireland would find some consistency of their own. Having cornered the market on slow starts to the Championship, followed by vastly improved stuff on the second outing, they delivered the win they wanted.

By kick-off the skies had cleared and we had conditions amenable to whatever case the teams wanted to make. Ireland's advocacy was mostly short and always direct, especially when the home team's error count started to rise in the second half.

Jacob Stockdale celebrates after scoring Ireland's second try. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Jacob Stockdale celebrates after scoring Ireland's second try. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Scotland wanted a different sort of game. For the opening five minutes they played with width and pace and caused Ireland real problems, but soon enough they found themselves bogged down, figuratively not literally, in a slug-fest that had brief and exciting distractions.

If this had been a first-round tie you would have left the scene thinking the tournament winners would be coming from somewhere else. It was a hard contest for the fans to get into, not helped by the mind-bendingly annoying policy in Murrayfield - and elsewhere - of filling gaps in play with bursts of music over the public address. What sort of imbecile thinks this adds value to the product?

Ireland are back on track, but exactly where won't be determined until close of play in Twickenham this afternoon. As for who is available, Johnny Sexton, who went off having failed a HIA early in the second quarter, is expected to be fit. Joe Schmidt said afterwards that his outhalf had got "a bit of a stamp on the head". He added Sexton had got "a little bit of treatment out there".

The Scots maintained that Peter O'Mahony's tackle that ended Stuart Hogg's game, five minutes before Sexton's departure, was in the same category. "It was disappointing," said Scotland coach Gregor Townsend.

Joey Carbery makes a break on his way to setting up Ireland’s crucial third try, scored by Keith Earls, in yesterday’s win over Scotland at the BT Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Joey Carbery makes a break on his way to setting up Ireland’s crucial third try, scored by Keith Earls, in yesterday’s win over Scotland at the BT Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

"He chipped ahead and he was sandwiched between two players and there was a collision which caused him to land on his shoulder."

The silver lining on the cloud of Sexton's departure was the way Joey Carbery handled the challenge. He recovered from throwing an intercept pass which finished in a try for Sam Johnson, just six minutes after Carbery had come on. The story had a happy ending though, with him making the try for Keith Earls on the hour mark that would leave Scotland needing two scores to win. The chasers would get one of those scores, only for Carbery to wipe it out again.

So that was another lodgement in the experience bank. Elsewhere, the Irish set-piece was very good, even if it didn't quite get the traction it wanted from the maul against a side who worry about that stuff. And their ability to retain the ball was also good. But, as ever, it took a mountain of phases. Meantime, you longed for Ireland to vary that approach a bit - great footwork from Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong who carried 20 times between them was as good as it got - and to do the same with their kicking game.

Everything seemed to go through Conor Murray, as usual, who got his range wrong a few times, which against a backfield with a few very good counter-attackers should have been more costly.

The defence all through was very good. And it had to be from the start given the way the home side opened up. The pressure gave Greig Laidlaw the opening points, with a penalty on seven minutes, but they were sickened by woeful defence that opened the door for a Murray try just four minutes later. Tommy Seymour, backtracking, put Sean Maitland in awful trouble with a wild pass and the scrumhalf pounced.

Then Jacob Stockdale, who had a fine game, scored from distance after a classic Schmidt set-piece strike: Murray combined with man of the match Peter O'Mahony - an interesting call - Sexton and Stockdale with the winger running through the hole and leaving all-comers in his wake. That put Ireland 12-3 up.

Johnson cut the lead with his try but the home side should have done better. When they went to the changing room at the break the two thorns that stuck in their side were gilt-edged moments in the Ireland 22 when they had come away empty-handed.

They came either side of Johnson's touchdown. The first probably seemed a good idea when they were planning how to mix up their attack. Handed a gimme penalty to touch from a few metres out, instead they tapped and attacked open. It came to nothing, and it pained the crowd as much as the players.

The second was longer in the losing of it. In the same corner, as the clock ticked down towards 40 minutes, an Ireland lineout steal at the front almost gave Scotland a try. Rory Best did very well to get his hand on the bouncing ball a fraction ahead of his opposite number Stuart McInally. Scrum five Scotland.

They opted to bring Seymour in off his wing as the first attacker, and then get around the corner. That race was tied. Thereafter they packed phase upon phase looking for a breakthrough and a couple of times thought they had it sorted. Then they spilled it under pressure. Ireland's defence there had been outstanding, and they deserved to go off with their two-point lead.

But Joe Schmidt had his own problems. Sexton wasn't coming back, and his replacement, who is lethal off quick go-forward ball, wasn't getting a lot of front-foot stuff. Still, Ireland continued to batter away, and as they did so the static carries were beginning to drag more ground from under the feet of the Scots. And Carbery gradually got more room to move.

He got better as the second half wore on. Typically, it was from broken play that he did the damage to open the door for Earls. First he slipped out of a double tackle when the ball had gone loose, and then when Blair Kinghorn was chasing him down he found Earls with a perfectly weighted long pass off his left hand.

By that stage Scotland were making enough mistakes to be drawing groans from the crowd who had hoped they would witness their eighth successive Championship win at this venue. Not close enough lads. We're not sure if the DJ whacked on a few appropriate tunes at the end to reflect that mood. By then we had tuned out. Next stop Rome in a fortnight, and Ireland will have a much-changed cast of characters on the stage.

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