With 7ᵗʰ place sorted, it was on to Dublin, where Ireland faced off against Scotland for 3ʳᵈ place in the overall standings. The Irish were playing what Andy Farrell would probably consider his best available team and had the first chance to put points on the board with a penalty, only for Jonathan Sexton to put his kick wide. Scotland grew into the game and after Jaco van der Walt missed a kick on his Test debut, he successfully kicked his next 3 while Sexton also found success with a second effort. As the game began to open up around the half hour mark, an Irish attack was stopped by what referee Matthew Carley considered a deliberate knock on by Duncan Taylor and the centre was sent to the sin bin. The Irish took advantage of the extra man, kicking the initial penalty, and scoring the opening try just before the break, as Robbie Henshaw beat Darcy Graham in the air to a Sexton high ball into the Scotland in-goal, and Keith Earls beat Ali Price to the loose ball on the floor, though Sexton missed the conversion for an 11-9 lead at the halfway point.
The momentum remaining with Ireland after the break and they took advantage of it, with Cian Healy pushing over from a pick-and-go following a series of phases deep in the Scottish 22, before another set of phases in the 22 created a one-man overlap that allowed Peter O’Mahony to send Earls over in the corner, with Sexton adding both conversions. Scotland hit back with a wonderful solo effort from Duhan van der Merwe, sniping down the side of a ruck and past an oblivious Rob Herring before rounding Jacob Stockdale with an arcing run, van der Walt converting. However, the Scottish discipline let them down and Ross Byrne kicked a penalty. The Irish thought they had another try as O’Mahony was fed the ball in acres of space on the right wing, only for a covering tackle from van der Merwe to force him to put a toe in touch, but Byrne kicked another penalty to take the score to 31-16, and the Scots could find no answer in the final minutes.
Man of the match
Man of the Match Caelan Doris should be quickly becoming one of the first names on the team sheet. The Leinster back row brings an extra dimension to the Irish back row, making the hard metres alongside CJ Stander but also being able to open his legs and eat up the ground when given space.
Ireland need to find more ball carriers who can consistently make metres in attack in order to compete against the more physical teams like England, France and South Africa, and a back rower like Doris who can truck the ball up in the tight but also take the ball wider out helps to create a match-up nightmare.
Combining Doris with Stander also creates a degree of tactical flexibility, as both could conceivably pack down at 8 or 6 and do the same job around the pitch, allowing the team to vary who is at the base of the scrum to keep the defence guessing. With Stander an adept jackal, bringing in a flanker who will tackle non-stop would create a great balance to the back row and allow the star players to do what they do best.
Finding the balance
For so long, I have talked about how Scotland will be a threat if they can find the right balance, and it looks like they now have it in the back line. Ali Price is rowing into a very mature halfback and is probably underrated in his ability. In Stuart Hogg at 15 and whoever they have at 10 (van der Walt adding to the depth at the position with Duncan Weir, Adam Hastings and Finn Russell), they have a great playmaker axis, with Hogg creating space when he gets the ball out wide or coming in at first receiver to allow his fly half to play wider.
Duhan van der Merwe and Darcy Graham are arguably the most dangerous pairing on the wings, with Sean Maitland and Blair Kinghorn providing great alternatives, and with the current centre pairing, it looks like they are finally getting released.
Today’s pairing of Duncan Taylor and Chris Harris may be known more for their defensive organisation, which is an important factor in Test rugby, but they also help to create the platform in midfield by running at the line and also knowing when to pass. Harris especially has developed a better attacking game since his move to Gloucester and can be a danger in the 13 channel, while Taylor has the work rate that all coaches cherish. Combine this with the danger of the carriers in the pack and the dual playmakers, and the space will come for the stars out wide to shine.
It was notable that Scotland struggled to create without Taylor on the pitch, and also looked much more beatable in defence. Scotland need to get the Taylor/Harris centre pairing on the pitch as much as they can, or find someone who can come in and keep the dynamic going.