If there was ever any doubt, Saturday’s game at Croke Park proved once and for all that sentiment plays little or no part in professional rugby.
All the reasons were there for a perfect finish to Ireland’s Croke Park sojourn, but Scotland crashed the party in every possible way. What will annoy Declan Kidney and his players most is that they allowed it to happen.
This should not take away from an excellent Scottish display. Andy Robinson’s men gave a performance, which had been promised in their other matches in the Championship, but failed to succeed either through their lack of game management or simple bad luck.
Scotland have their limitations, but they played to their strengths, especially at the breakdown, their offloads stuck and when they had chances to score points they were ruthless. None more so than Dan Parks who showed nerves of steel as he hit one of the best penalties you will ever see to retake the lead minutes from the end.
Yes, of course, he took his time, but the jeers and boos from the crowd were completely unnecessary and out of place with the occasion.
Nonetheless, as well as Scotland played, statistics will tell their own tale from an Irish point of view. Ireland enjoyed greater possession and territory than in recent games, but were nowhere near as clinical in their execution. Passes that normally stick went to ground and in trying to offload, far too often the wrong decision was made at the wrong time.
The rugby Ireland played was loose, too loose. The most important thing to look after on the rugby pitch is the ball — without it you can do nothing.
Ireland normally protect that most sacred of oval objects as if it means the world to them, but on Saturday they took unnecessary chances and possession was compromised too often.
By implication, this also leaves the players open to the accusation that their mental state was also slacker than it should have been.
Openly, Declan Kidney stated that he expected the match to be exceptionally tough, but you wonder whether the players allowed themselves to get distracted ever so slightly by the romanticism of the occasion.
The irony is that there were moments of real quality interspersed with the unforced errors. In the lead-up to Brian O’Driscoll’s try we saw once again what Johnny Sexton offers — pace and eye for a gap are exceptional for a number ten — and the way that he finished off his role with a slight dummy and delayed pass was top notch.
His kicking clearly needs a lot of hard work, but I do not believe that this was the reason for Ireland’s defeat. In fact, maybe the try did not benefit Ireland at all because it gave false hope that the loose approach was working. Scotland’s try confirmed that it wasn’t.
What let Ireland down most was the lack of stability in the setpieces.
When Ireland do the basics well, invariably the skill of the players means that the rest of the game looks after itself. On Saturday, those foundations got dismantled.
The strongest area of Ireland’s game thus far has been the lineout, however, there was only one winner in this department and it wasn’t wearing green.
It is easy to blame the throwing of the hooker and Rory Best will undoubtedly shoulder much of the blame, but this is far too simplistic an approach.
There are so many facets to a successful lineout that the culpability is a collective one. Scotland disrupted the chances of securing quality ball at source and this really hurt the potential for Ireland to launch similar attacks to previous matches.
If the result in Paris brought Ireland’s unbeaten run to an end, this defeat to a more limited opponent should cause a far greater reality check. Hard thinking will have to be done.
Above all, this will have to be applied to the area that has consistently been the Achilles heel in Ireland’s armoury — the scrum. Cian Healy struggled against Euan Murray, but he is a cub and is gleaning vital experience that will benefit Ireland for years to come.
However, the same approach has to be taken with the tighthead position. John Hayes is a legend, but the scrum can and will only get worse over time.
If Ireland want to come close to their potential in RWC 2011, a better scrum is required.
Two steps forward may mean another back in the short term, but this necessary pain must be taken as a matter of urgency.