Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 23 November 2014

RBS 6 Nations: Ireland can slay the Dragons

Ireland drive forward for Jamie Heaslip to touch down for the  second try
Ireland drive forward for Jamie Heaslip to touch down for the second try

This was far from the perfect performance that Joe Schmidt would have craved and yet, in the context of what lies ahead next weekend, it was pretty much the ideal dress rehearsal.

A scratchy first half saved only by a well-crafted, well-finished try by Andrew Trimble presented a somewhat distorted lead to the home side at half-time.

It left much to be addressed at the break and it was – by way of a second half of near total domination. With or without the ball, it was the green-clad warriors in control in the second half.

And 'warrior' is the operative word, for this was, for over an hour, a traditional Ireland/Scotland war of attrition from days long past.

Scott Johnson declared in midweek that the Scots would come to battle it out at the breakdown and they did. It was never going to be any other way. This is a big, ball-carrying Scottish unit, but, save for Stuart Hogg at full-back, one with very little creativity.

If they were still playing, they wouldn't have registered a try, so limited are they in attacking ability. Putting width on the ball is all very well, except it makes defensive decision-making very easy for the side on the drift.

Never, but never, despite a fair modicum of possession, did the Scots look like creating a line break yesterday. It could be a long and arduous Championship ahead for them.

Outside of David Denton's power from any sort of maul close to the line, it is difficult to see where the tries will come for a hugely competitive, but extremely disappointing Scottish side.

From an Irish perspective, it was a case of job done ahead of the more serious test to come on Saturday.

We were slow out of the blocks, but given it was the first game, on a Sunday afternoon and minus our captain, I think there's room for a bit of slack.

Ireland weren't good in the first half, but they weren't bad either, it was a mixed bag. But what needed to be addressed at half-time was addressed and the second half saw one team take control and the other disappear into oblivion.

The final 22-point difference was fully reflective of the game overall and the second-half takeover in particular.

Indeed, it might have been even more again had Dave Kearney's contortionist touchdown effort got the five-pointer it deserved at the death.

Earlier on, it took a spark of Johnny Sexton genius two minutes before the break to open up the Scottish defence and expose the king minus his clothes for the first time

Once we managed to string together a number of meaningful phases, we knew we had what the Scots lacked in terms of penetration. And so it came to pass.

Once they had tired of shifting it from side to side and running endlessly into opposition bodies, Plan 'B,' you felt, would be the kick. It was and when executed badly it makes for 'last-resort rugby' of the worst kind. And we took full advantage.

That is the real plus for Schmidt and Ireland – they took the best the Scots could offer physically, soaked it up and then moved through the gears without coming close to overdrive.

The set-piece – scrum and line-out – was solid, while the defence dictated that, with the ball, the team in blue was going nowhere.

In individual terms, there were big performances all round. Cian Healy did all that was asked of him and more.

Dan Tuohy was immense and looked unbeatable. The back-row of Peter O'Mahony, Chris Henry and the stand-in skipper Jamie Heaslip out-thought and outfought their much-vaunted opposition.

I just love O'Mahony's wholehearted approach to every game he plays. The guy is top quality, while Heaslip alongside again illustrated why the IRFU have broken the piggy bank to keep this outstanding rugby player at home. I just wish he was acknowledged on occasion for the selfless nature of his game.

The half-backs operated on a different level – even when under the cosh in the opening quarter – as we expected they would, while every one of the three-quarters delivered to order, with Andrew Trimble, Luke Marshall and, most of all, on his 50th appearance, Rob Kearney, prominent.

Kearney brings that 'X' factor to the full-back position whereby his own confidence in the last line filters through to the 14 in front. He is a real team leader and every bit as important as Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell in that regard.

When you can empty your bench as head coach in your first ever game at this level, well I reckon it's a pretty good place to be for Joe Schmidt.

The Welsh showed little against the Italians in Cardiff and I firmly believe that was by design. The kitchen sink is on the way for Dublin where, despite Warren Gatland's attempts at playing the new cuddly-card, the Welsh boss, Shaun Edwards, Rob Howley and the rest will be coming to do a number on the Irish by whatever means it takes.

While there is undoubtedly much room for improvement, the most encouraging message from this initial run-out is that under Schmidt, Les Kiss and John Plumtree this squad is ready... physically and mentally.

Saturday can't come quickly enough.

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