After a COVID outbreak caused their Round 3 match against France to be delayed, Scotland got back to playing by hosting Ireland at Murrayfield. It’s safe to say that they didn’t get off to the start they wanted, as Jonathan Sexton kicked a penalty after just 3 minutes to give the Irish the lead. The early phase of the game saw Ireland continue in the ascendency, and when Keith Earls, Chris Harris and Stuart Hogg failed to claim Sexton’s cross-kick into the in-goal, Robbie Henshaw was there to follow up an dot down the loose ball for the opening try, which Sexton failed to convert. This try appeared to wake up the Scots, and after Finn Russell opened his account for the day with a penalty and Hamish Watson won a crucial turnover penalty on his line, Scotland scored a try of their own that could only be described as rugby chaos: Stuart Hogg charged down a Garry Ringrose kick following a turnover and appeared to try kicking the ball up into his hands, only for it to bounce forward off his chin – not a knock on – before Hogg’s next kick sent the ball infield towards Finn Russell, whose own hack on caught out the retreating James Lowe and allowed the Scottish fly half to collect the ball and go over, giving himself an easy conversion to take the lead. That lead didn’t last long as good pressure on the kick chase gave Sexton another penalty, and after Russell missed a kick of his own, a silly offside from Ali Price let Sexton kick a third penalty to end the half with a 10-14 lead.
Ireland struck first in the second half with a lineout 5 metres from the Scottish line. The Scots successfully sacked the maul at source, but Ireland went through the phases with maximum aggression and Tadhg Beirne eventually found his way over the line, with Romain Poite adamant that he had seen a grounding of the ball despite relays suggesting otherwise. Sexton kicked the conversion and added a penalty to expand the lead to 14. As the half went on, the game became so fast and furious all that was missing was a cameo from Vin Diesel, but substitute Huw Jones managed to brush off a grasping tackle from James Lowe and burst between him and Hugo Keenan to score a crucial try for the Scots, which was converted by Stuart Hogg, who was taking over the kicking and fly half responsibilities due to Finn Russell suffering a head injury. An injury to Scott Cummings after Scotland had brought on all their replacement forwards saw replacement scrum half Scott Steele employed as a makeshift blindside flanker, but he didn’t look out of place and got stuck in with the pack as Scotland hammered on the Irish try line following a series of penalties in the Irish 22, and Hamish Watson finally managed to twist and turn his way over the line and get the ball to ground, with Hogg kicking the conversion to draw things level. Unfortunately for the Scots, Ali Price saw his box kick charged down in his 22 – not the first time in this year’s tournament – and though he recovered the loose ball, he was pinged for holding on with Iain Henderson latched in over the top, and Sexton took his time to kick the crucial penalty to hand the Irish a 24-27 victory.
While some poor discipline certainly cost the Scots at crucial times, there was something else that proved even more costly: their lineout. The men in blue won just 2 of their 8 lineouts, while they also gave away a free kick at one before the throw.
Of course the Irish lineout – under the tutelage of Paul O’Connell – will cause any team problems, but a team looking to regularly win against Tier 1 nations needs to be doing better. This far into the tournament, you can’t even use the absence of Fraser Brown and Stuart McInally as an excuse, as George Turner has had plenty of time with the starting XV and with 14 caps to his name can no longer be considered a rookie at international level.
With Italy up next, Scotland need to show a massive improvement in this area if they are to have any chance of being competitive there when they play their rearranged fixture against the French. If not, then then a season that promised so much will see them finish in the bottom half of the standings again.
As well as stealing most of the Scottish lineouts, the Irish also managed to somewhat dominate the breakdown. The physicality of the Irish pack is always there with players Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy, Iain Henderson, James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne and CJ Stander, and having players like Robbie Henshaw and James Lowe just adds to that and helps put the team on the front foot in the contact, while other players are very technically good in contact too, allowing them to bring down their man maybe not with a dominant tackle, but till in a way that gives the jackal every chance of winning a turnover.
And now let’s talk about those jackals. The Irish don’t rely on just 1 or 2 players for their jackaling, 1-23 will be happy to get in there and latch on the ball, and so many of them are famed for their jackaling ability, especially when you have one or both of Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson in the second row.
With so many jackals on the pitch and players trained to tackle in a way that will give them the best chance to win the turnover, it makes it hard for a side to attack effectively, as they will have to commit numbers to the breakdown, and will eventually run out of support after a number of phases. Usually it would be the defence that would tire quicker during a protracted period of play, but by defending in this way, it allows the Irish to stay organised and limit the effort they are putting out, keeping them fresh to attack with clinical ferocity.
The Irish attack may still be a work in progress under Andy Farrell, but their defence will keep them in contention against most teams.
While CJ Stander had a quieter match (by his standards), Man of the Match Tadhg Beirne and lock Iain Henderson must be securing their places in the Lions squad with fantastic all-round games, while Robbie Henshaw is arguably a contender for Player of the Tournament. Meanwhile, Hamish Watson once again showed that his talents at the breakdown are just the tip of the iceberg with some ferocious carrying.
Unfortunately, in an area with such depth, both Duhan van der Merwe and James Lowe will be disappointed with their performances in this match considering their lack of Test experience, while Jamison Gibson-Park struggled for consistency with his box kicks and Ali Price may have found himself getting charged down once too often for Warren Gatland’s liking.