This was a dreadful loss against a poor Scottish side. Ireland won the gain-line battle 44 to 9 but still lost. That is shocking and an indication that our accuracy and decision making were way short of the standard required. Ireland dominated for long periods and should have been out of sight by half-time. No doubt some will point to Jackson not taking his kicks, even if most of them were quite tough. But the young man played decently well in all other facets and Ireland should not have been relying on his form off the tee to win. Our other young debutant, Luke Marshall, had a fantastic first outing, making some excellent line-breaks and showing fine distribution skills to boot. His defence was also very robust. He can look forward to a long career in the Irish 12 jersey.
So what went wrong? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure because the stats suggest we should have won at a canter and in some departments we improved significantly. Heaslip was excellent with ball with hand, if a little ill-disciplined at the breakdown. SOB was magnificent again bar the frankly shocking penalty for handling in the ruck that probably should have resulted in a yellow and Ryan had another good outing. We also managed to blood two new players, which can only be a positive.
However, having been superior in the set-piece to the much vaunted England two weeks ago, we were well beaten in this department by Scotland. Court started poorly and in the end only managed parity against Cross who is regarded as no better than average. The Ulsterman will be disappointed with his performance. Things didn’t get any better when Kilcoyne came on, although he did win the penalty at the end which gave Ireland one last chance. This game confirmed what a top player Cian Healy is – how costly his rush of blood to the head was.
We struggled badly at the lineout with Scotland’s height causing Rory all sorts of bother. But when we won the ball, the maul went really well. Axel Foley’s influence is clear and it is proving to be very effective.
We created plenty of chances in the first half with some fine backs moves leading to clean line breaks albeit aided and abetted by some pretty ordinary tackling by the Scottish midfield. Marshall’s first break was outstanding as was his long pass to Earls who was well hauled in by the defence. But then Ireland failed horribly to maintain the tempo. Murray has got to shoulder the blame here. He must demand the ball and set the backs away whilst the defence is re-organising. He was ponderous throughout and to compare his tempo to that of Care or Youngs is painful in the extreme.
Marshall’s next break should have led to a try for Gilroy had his pass been slightly better – the right decision but the execution was only marginally off.
But there was nothing marginal about Earls’ abject butchery that followed shortly after. Another excellent backs move set him clear, running hard towards the left corner. BOD was screaming up inside him and in loads of space. Earls should have been looking for him but wasn’t. Instead, he pinned his ears back and tried to take on Visser and Hogg (FFS!) on the outside and the move ended with him being tackled into touch. During the week he spoke about how he has been working with Enda McNulty to build his self-confidence. It’s clearly working, but a degree of realism wouldn’t go amiss. BOD was seen to give him some robust feedback, hopefully along the lines off ‘You will wear this shirt of mine over my dead body.’
Finally, because I really don’t want to dwell on this performance, we need to talk about ROG. I have thought for some time that the great man is past it. There is no doubt that, even someway off his magnificent best, ROG would have been the man for the job. But he has been a shadow of himself for some time. He looks completely out of place on the international stage, typified by his madness at the end of the Boks match and the extraordinary kick pass to the Scottish midfield today. His kicking from hand lacks length and even his place-kicking is no longer top class.
It pains me greatly that he will not (and should not) have the opportunity to leave the top stage in better circumstances. I have enjoyed watching him tremendously and he owes nobody anything. But it is time to replace him before he becomes a complete joke. He should not be invited back to Carton House in anything other than a coaching role.
So where do we go from here? This Championship is over for Ireland so Kidney, who will surely be looking for new employment come the summer, must avoid any temptation to be conservative. To be fair, he has made some brave calls in selecting Zebo, Gilroy, Jackson and Marshall and they have all worked, to a greater or lesser extent. Henderson, whose 3 caps have all been limited to the last few minutes, looked very dynamic again. He gets over the gain line every time and must be a better bet than an aging DOC.
Madigan looked good at the RDS last night making a mockery of his initial omission from the Irish training squad. If, as expected, J10 is still broken for the French match, I would start with Jackson again and have Madigan on the bench. Certainly not the form call, but it would be harsh, and potentially damaging, to drop PJ after his first cap.
I’d be tempted to pick Reddan or Paul Marshall, to speed up the service from the base of the ruck. Murray is not playing as well as either of them and needs a kick up the erse.
Finally, I’d bring Fitzgerald in for Earls. The Limerick flyer is a fine runner but his rugby brain has developed not a jot in 4 years. Regrettably, I now fear that it may never do so which is a shame. I really don’t enjoy writing this because he is one of the most likeable international sportsmen you will ever come across. However, watching him in a green shirt is bad for my heart.
So we have the better part of two weeks to wait for a shot at redemption against a much-improved French side. Now that St `Andre is selecting a proper side they will be much more dangerous. That said, their fitness is some way behind that of the other teams and the French coach, in keeping with tradition, is clearly bonkers. His decision to sub Trinh Duc and Parra was inexplicable and led, almost directly, to their defeat. We must hope that he keeps it up for their visit to the Aviva.
As I type, the highlights of that game are on the telly, Fofana’s try was a thing of rare beauty. Receiving the ball 10 yards outside of the French 22, he glided past the hapless Lawes, mesmerised Ashton into stepping out of the way (watch it again – it’s extraordinary) hands off Youngs’ weak attempt at the tackle and then sped away from the despairing cover defence for a 65m individual score par excellence: the moment of the tournament so far for me.
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