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The continuing loyalty to Conor Murray is verging on the sentimental

Eamonn Sweeney


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Conor Murray is tackled by Adam Hastings of Scotland

Conor Murray is tackled by Adam Hastings of Scotland

SPORTSFILE

John Cooney. Photo: Sportsfile

John Cooney. Photo: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

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Conor Murray is tackled by Adam Hastings of Scotland

So much for the brave new world. For all the talk of a different and more expansive approach Ireland's win over Scotland was founded on traditional virtues, epitomised by the defensive obduracy which repeatedly halted the visitors just feet from the line in the closing stages.

Andy Farrell's choice of captain and team selection suggested a conservative mindset at odds with boosterish talk of a more exciting Ireland. This display confirmed that, as far as the new boss is concerned, the problem isn't the style of rugby Ireland played last year but the way in which that style was executed.

So there was something thuddingly familiar about this performance. The anticipated festival of offloading and adventure never came to pass. Ireland were pragmatic in the extreme, grinding out a win by dint of physical power and an ability to frustrate the opposition.

CJ Stander's man of the match award was deserved even if he did make an average four yards per carry. Where he excelled was in turning over possession and slowing Scotland up at the breakdown as did Josh van Der Flier, Iain Henderson and Peter O'Mahony.

Creatively it was another matter. By the 24th minute Conor Murray had tried four box-kicks: three went down the throats of Scottish players and the fourth skied ludicrously into the air. Jacob Stockdale and Andrew Conway were limited to chasing or fielding kicks as was Jordan Larmour, which was a particular pity, as one scintillating early break suggested a player primed to make a big impact.

There was a feeling of déjà vu when Ireland were in possession with phases laboriously strung together and the ball seldom being spun wide. The move between Cian Healy, Murray and Johnny Sexton which produced the game's only try was a small gem of invention but it was a rare exception in a prosaic performance.

You can look on the bright side and say Ireland's opening performance against France in the Grand Slam season wasn't exciting either. But after a year where uninspiring performances were defended on the grounds that something marvellous waited at the end of the Japanese rainbow, there's something mildly depressing about having to go that route again.

There's a huge contrast between Ireland and Wales whose performance against Italy showed that Wayne Pivac is serious about changing the way they play. Farrell's big selection calls had varying degrees of success. The decision to stick with Stander was vindicated though you suspect the manager might have been surprised that the South African's main work was in the destructive rather than constructive area. But the continuing loyalty to Murray is verging on the sentimental.

The manager's predictions during the week that the scrumhalf would have a big game showed his awareness of the growing case for starting John Cooney at number nine. That case is even stronger now. Murray's kicking was poor, he almost gave away a try with an intercepted pass and looked like a player who could do with a rest. Cooney on the other hand came in with the game still in the balance, an unpropitious time for a player who's at his most exciting with ball in hand. Yet he produced a quartet of superb kicks which played their part in getting over the line. He should start next Saturday.

Ireland's 2007 and 2015 World Cup disappointments were also followed by predictions that players, stung by defeat, would come roaring back in the Six Nations. It didn't happen then and you wonder if it'll happen this year either. Henderson, in fairness, looked an entirely rejuvenated figure but in most other cases talk of 'answering critics' 'redemption' and 'laying down markers' seems ill-founded for the moment.

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After all Scotland are, as they showed at the World Cup, a pretty terrible team. They seemed like the ideal opponents for a side in need of a confidence boost yet caused Ireland much more trouble than anyone had anticipated. Stuart Hogg's nightmarish fumble of the ball which botched the simplest of try opportunities summed up their afternoon, high on effort but full of errors.

Wales, England and France will all provide truer tests. Yet Ireland's safety- first approach could prove something of a vicious circle. Because if you're not going to take risks against Scotland, how are you going to take them against much stronger opposition? But if that means Ireland's game remains as limited as it was yesterday, is it going to be good enough to do the business in Twickenham or Paris?

Farrell's utilitarian approach is defensible. Declarations that Ireland must immediately begin building for 2023 are a bit far-fetched. The Six Nations can't simply be written off to serve the pursuit of some larger objective. It is a tournament Ireland can win whereas the World Cup will always remain out of our reach.

Perhaps the stolid unimaginative stuff Ireland played yesterday represents our best route to honours. But it's slightly disenchanting to so quickly say goodbye to dreams of playing like the England and All Blacks teams which outclassed us last year.

Though in election week maybe there's something fitting about an Irish team where the only real change is the name of the guy in the top job. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Sunday Indo Sport


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