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It's unfair to lay blame on Jacko

Ulsterman was let down by back-row when stubborn Schmidt should have changed his failing game-plan

By David Kelly

Murrayfield stands defiant in darkness; a cacophonous cackle of appalling, ear-splitting light rock music has expelled the last of the patrons.

Two years ago, the Irish turned this place into an impromptu outdoor nightclub to celebrate another Six Nations title.

Now it is the Jocks who are cock-a-hoop and their players even conduct a lap of honour.

A short time later, the Irish players trundle through Edinburgh Airport accompanied by almost apologetic applause from supporters.

Defeat feels worse when it is largely self-inflicted. Ireland competitively searched for a variety of reasons to lose this game, found them quite readily but then remarkably recovered to give themselves a chance.

It suited the general theme of incompetence and inattention to detail that Ireland conspired to lose it once more. There is much to ponder.

Chiefly, Ireland may start by perhaps planning an overnight stay in the Stadio Olimpico next Friday night, rather than risking the anarchic traffic-laden piazzas on match day.

Coaches have access to more technological expertise than NASA. And yet Ireland's day was undone before a ball was kicked by an utterly avoidable mishap.

Ireland, who seem so addicted to unchanging routine that even the most minor upset can veer them off course, were 15 minutes late to the ground.

In a city where buses run quicker than the trams, confusion is perhaps understandable. But not excusable.

Still, head coach Joe Schmidt mentioned it several times. And the breeze. And the breakdown. And the defence. And the attack. And the lineout.

Curiously, he never mentioned himself. Later, Eddie Jones' England had a similarly slow start against France, emerged to win and the coach immediately tipped the blame upon his own shoulders.

Surveying the wreckage of Grand Slam and Triple Crown hopes, it appears as if Schmidt eyed deficiencies everywhere else. Deep down, he will know all those factors are his responsibility.

Andy Farrell, rightly, will take a hit. Despite the almost religious devotion to his labours, the fruits of them a continuing flood of conceded tries, doesn't stack up.

Simon Easterby's set-piece stumbles returned to haunt him. But, ultimately, just as Schmidt himself garnered so much credit for the Chicago coup, this worrying re-visiting of the nadir of World Cup and 2016 Six Nations disappointment should expose him to criticism now - particularly the reluctance to alter a game-plan that was utterly unfit for purpose.

Even when the side's approach seemed that it might be enough to get them over the line, Ireland were so tired from launching their ball carriers into blue walls that multiple line-breaks were forfeited.

Scotland ruthlessly exposed an Irish side that, even as the sod dried and the sun shone, chose (or were instructed) to mostly abandon the energy and enigma that had thrived in Chicago.

No off-loads, one-out bashing and (poor) box-kicking, added to a creaking line-out - their normal route to the whitewash - compounded the general lethargy.

Their comfort zone - whether reaching the ground not a second beyond schedule or failing to score from a catch and drive lineout - inflicted catatonia upon Ireland for the first half-hour.

At least the PA didn't inflict catatonia upon us after the final whistle. Ireland will just hear catcalls ringing in their ears.

Paddy Jackson may hear the criticism more than most. That would be harshly unfair.

On Saturday, we walked the Royal Mile and made it our business to visit the grave of local poet Robert Fergusson in the Canongate Kirkyard.

His was a sad life. A heavy drinker, he suffered from depression and ended his life in a lunatic asylum. He was 24, but, had Rabbie Burns not lived, Scots would celebrate Fergusson's night, not Burns Nicht.

He wrote of death: "Alas, how oft, with merry heart, have we beheld thee play the Sexton's part; Each comic heart must now be grieved to see The Sexton's dreary part performed on thee."

Ulsterman Jackson metaphorically succumbed here on his debut four years ago but could not be said to have suffered a similar fate on Saturday.

Like all his comrades, he recovered after the team woke up. We're not sure whether our poet might have contemplated between drams of Scotch whether or not one should risk Ireland's Sexton for another tricky trip to Rome.

For what it's worth - perhaps less than the IRFU's traffic navigating abilities - Jackson should start in Rome, with Sexton not risked.

Jackson was not faultless, but the defeat was not his fault; the back-row behemoths asked to sweep the way forward to allow him the space and time to play did not do so.

Nor did they possess a member who could consistently pilfer.

Also, Jackson would not have expected to rely on his dominant scrum-half partner, but he also would not have expected him to perform so poorly.

Jackson, like any out-half, played well when his team did; when they stank, he couldn't help but reek too.

Schmidt has had to plan in Sexton's absence - "82 minutes in eight matches" - and should continue doing so.

The Kiwi may have been on a slow coach to the ground on Saturday, but he is not one himself.

Belfast Telegraph

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