Harsh lessons for Ireland after shock Six Nations defeat to Scotland
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Harsh lessons for Ireland after shock Six Nations defeat to Scotland

WELL that certainly wasn’t in the script.

After rehearsals in November – when New Zealand, of all teams, as well as Australian scalps were taken, the line Ireland wanted to sell was that England’s visit to the Aviva on March 18 would be for a Six Nations Grand Slam showdown.

But Scotland wouldn’t buy it. And so after a first-half performance that veered between average and disastrous, three tries and 21 points were shipped and while their second-half display was miles better – Ireland got what they deserved.

“There’s an old saying in rugby, that you should never give a sucker a chance,” said Eddie O’Sullivan, the former Ireland coach. “Well, Ireland did that.”

Having been tanked by 30 points when Ireland last visited Murrayfield in 2015, Scotland’s subsequent history has been one of near misses and heartbreak.

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They had Australia, England, Ireland, Wales and most impressively, New Zealand, all within firing range during the Vern Cotter reign. Yet each time they lost; moral victories – rather than actual ones – had, until Saturday, defined the Cotter era.

“Well, that’s something we want to change,” Cotter said. And they did, Stuart Hogg’s speed of movement, and Alex Dunbar’s speed of thought, leading to those three first half tries, which put them into a 21-5 lead – at which point you thought they’d stroll to victory.

Instead they had to scrap for it as Ireland’s comeback was orchestrated by Paddy Jackson, whose previous performance for his country in Murrayfield was so bad that everyone wondered if his first cap would also be his last.

But that was four years ago. Jackson is a different player now to then – and he showed it, stepping up to the plate, making a sharp break which eventually led to Ireland’s first try for Keith Earls, before he got their third, on 63 minutes, to suggest a comeback was on the cards.

laidlaw-n Greig Laidlaw impressed against Ireland (Image: INPHO/Dan Sheridan)

Greig Laidlaw, however, had other ideas, landing two late penalties to restore Scotland’s lead and send them on their way to a first opening-day Six Nations Championship win in a decade.

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“We had a number of line breaks (12 in total, Scotland had six) and we didn’t finish them,” Joe Schmidt, the Ireland coach, said afterwards. “We had territory and possession in the first half but they had the scores on the board.

"Some of our play was very slow. And some of the possession you really want is from those positions in the 22, and I think we turned two or three of those over. And it was just too easy for them to sort of come back and attack at us.”

That was highlighted in the aftermath of that Jackson try. Having scored 17 unanswered points, to put themselves back into the game, they stopped doing the things that had been impressive.

“And Scotland profited,” O’Sullivan said. “They controlled the game after going ahead. But prior to then Ireland had chances.”

They certainly did. Rob Kearney put a foot in touch just before offloading to Keith Earls who crossed the line for what could have been a fourth Irish try.

Jamie Heaslip coughed up possession when a pass to Robbie Henshaw was on, Kearney again was on the scene as Ireland had an overlap – but he threw his pass into touch.

Schmidt’s subsequent frustration was evident.

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“Leading up to that penalty, Scotland actually had a five metre line out just prior to that and we didn’t get as much pressure on that as we would have liked,” Schmidt said. “Post that, we had a line out just outside their 22, and we didn’t make enough use of that ball. As soon as you don’t do that, you are inviting them in. And when they got the chance, they made the most of it.”

“We stuck to our plan,” Laidlaw said. And Ireland didn’t.

“We didn’t get going for half an hour,” Schmidt would later say.

By then Dunbar had crossed the line direct from a line-out, the third piece of opportunism from a team who recycled possession so much quicker than Ireland did.

“We weren’t awake to that,” said Sean O’Brien, the Ireland flanker. “And that summed up so much of our first half. We needed to be a little bit more urgent. It was a little bit lethargic on both sides of the ball in that first 20 minutes. That’s what let us down.”

Other things let them down too. Scotland’s defence was good. Ireland’s was not.

“There is a problem that Ireland have – and we have seen it exposed by Argentina in the World Cup as well,” said O’Sullivan. “They commit players to rucks – too many players sometimes – and if a team can get the ball wide really quickly then we’re in trouble.

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"Argentina exposed it in the World Cup quarter final, Australia and New Zealand used this tactic effectively in the November series too and then came Scotland on Saturday.”

And Schmidt knows as much. “If you have got numbers in the defensive line then you have got a lot more of an opportunity to have certainty that you have got all the space covered,” said the 51-year-old Ireland coach.

“And I thought we did that well in the second half where we almost created a frustration for them that allowed us opportunities. There were a few turnovers from them that saw us get in behind them and you know we got a lot more offensive because we got those numbers on their feet.”

The damage had been done by then, though, although surely Schmidt will have a plan to deal with history repeating itself again in their next Six Nations game in Italy this weekend.

“Unfortunately there are never any guarantees in this game. All you can do is review how and why and what happened and ensure the players know how important that first 20 minutes is and how important that first half is,” he said.

Cotter, for one, is convinced they will come back.

“Ireland are a good team,” the Scottish coach said. “They’ll be a force to be reckoned with. When we got the ball in their half we scored. We knew we’d have to put tackles in. If you don’t do that against Ireland, they’ll punish you. We learned that the hard way two years ago.”

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This time it was the Scots who dished out the harsh lessons.