There’s always something a little strange about winning something in a suit. The only other time you whoop it up in a suit is when you win an Oscar but, as that’s unlikely to lie in any of this squad’s future – sorry guys – they’ll just have to make do with a third Six Nations title in five years.
I know that articles like this end up telling you to remember things that are obvious but I’m going to do it anyway; these are special times with a special group of players so enjoy them. I’m old enough to remember years of Five Nations performances that ranged from mediocre to wet rubbish so the idea that 20 years later Ireland would be winning championships, beating the Springboks in South Africa and finally beating the All Blacks with this group of players, I probably wouldn’t believe you. But here we are.
We won’t get too carried away, of course. Nobody will. A Championship is good, but there’s nothing like a Grand Slam and shooting for one in Twickenham is about as tough an ask as there is in this tournament. But I wouldn’t bet against this collection of Irish players.
We’re playing rugby like the superpower we’re aiming to become in this game.
What do teams who have these lofty aims do? They win in Paris by hook or by crook. They win all their home games with a bonus point. They win the tournament with a game to spare. You don’t do this accidentally because this tournament roots out luck and throws it on the scrap heap of “Not This Year”. For an example of that, see last year. And the one before that.
So what’s changed? Ireland have changed. We’ve aligned our game to almost perfectly reflect our collective strengths and developed a crop of young players that are eminently capable of tangling with the very best in the world.
That meant a few years of rebuilding, but the pieces are there now. Young lads and test newcomers like Leavy, Ryan, Porter, Aki, Farrell, Stockdale and Larmour mixed with elite senior guys like Sexton, Murray, O’Mahony, Henderson, Stander, Earls, Healy, Best, Toner and Kearney. Add in guys like Kleyn, Beirne, Conan, Van Der Flier, the Scannell Bros, Conway and a dozen other guys below the surface of test level and you can have real confidence in where this Ireland side are looking to go.
We have the talent to go beyond the empty calories of moral victories and shoot for silverware. Next week will be a further test but the “rebuild” after 2015 continues to gather pace. Look at the World Cup squad from 2015 – the bulk of which won our back to back Championships in 2014 and 2015. Sixteen players from that squad of 31 are either retired or no longer in contention for selection.
Two years after that turnover, we’ve another Championship that we won pulling up. Whatever about anything else, that’s an achievement worth celebrating.
Now – let’s see how it was won;
Scotland came into this game with a lot of confidence; both in themselves and in their game plan. I wrote before the game that Scotland’s game plan perfectly tailors their squad strengths right now and it’s true. The only problem is that style doesn’t translate into a game that can withstand the kind of pressure that Ireland put on them yesterday. Scotland aren’t too far away from where they want to be, I think, but yesterday was an illustration of the road they have yet to travel. Ireland were ruthless, brutal in contact and clinical when it counted. The scoreboard doesn’t fully reflect the closeness of the game in parts but a bonus point win and twenty point margin shows the inherent quality of the Irish performance in the game-winning moments.
The allegory of Scotland for Glasgow when playing Irish sides is an easy one to make, but I make it because the post-game numbers look so similar.
Scotland’s collective forward carrying numbers were; 69 total carries for a combined 90 metres gained.
Ireland’s collective forward carrying numbers were; 102 total carries for a combined 165 metres gained.
This doesn’t tell you everything about the game, obviously, but it does tell you this; Ireland’s forwards got on the ball more and made more ground man for man on their opponents. It tells you that Scotland’s forwards struggled to get over the gain line and then clocked up 168 collectively over the course of the game.
In short; Ireland ground Scotland out.
Unlike England last week, Ireland approached this game with a clear understanding of where Scotland are dangerous when you’re looking to attack them.
Scotland’s mobile back five are perfectly suited to sniping isolated ball carriers on the floor in wider areas. Whenever Ireland were loose in their phase construction and ruck support, Scotland punished them but that was a rare enough occurrence. For the most part, Ireland kept a narrow carrying alignment that prioritised incremental gain line wins and securing possession.
This kind of possession (and here’s another example) puts the Scottish forwards into areas of the pitch where they could be hurt. They’ll make their tackles – I mean Gray, Barclay and Watson made 27, 28 and 25 tackles between them) but every tackle they make slows them down a shade, creates a half second of space outside and reduces their attacking mobility.
When it came to the phase play between the 22s, I thought Ireland punished Scotland on possession. Everything we did was built on reliable chains of tight possession;
Ireland’s main attacking flourishes came off set-piece because this is the area of the game where we could take Scotland’s mobility out of the game and take advantage of the punishment we put in on phase play.
Jacob Stockdale’s second try came off the back of a 5m scrum and the slick handling of Aki and Ringrose.
Conor Murray’s try came off the back of a maul;
As did Sean Cronin’s bonus point try.
Ireland’s rhythmic, relentless possession drew what it needed to out of the Scottish defence – key penalties and tired bodies. The scrum set an excellent platform, as did the lineout once we ironed out some early kinks.
Ireland were efficient with possession, endlessly physical and kept the Scottish jackalling game quiet for the most part.
Defending The Scots
It didn’t take much in the way of analysis to predict that Ireland would have this kind of maul, scrum and fringe carry possession advantage. The big question was – how would Ireland manage the dangerous width of the Scottish attack? Ireland have had some defensive issues in the games prior to Scotland but I felt those were individual in nature rather than systemic. To handle Scotland, we could have no such errors. That meant being extremely careful not to give up kick transition events – and we didn’t – and making sure we prevented Scotland from launching their preferred methods of attack.
Scotland want to mainly attack you from the 13 channel out but to get there, they have to get quick ruck ball far enough away from the edge to stretch your defence as you align off the ruck. From an Irish perspective, we had to;
Stop the initial forward carry.
Beat them on numbers at that ruck.
Slow the ball if possible so that your outside defenders can assess the threats.
Soft blitz on the wide ball that comes off that ruck and mop up the ball once it goes beyond the edge.
Scotland will generally send their forwards to the gain line like this;
They’re going in tight clusters to ensure they get possession for the next, wider phase. But look at those ruck numbers – even early on they’re losing a lot of forwards compared to Ireland. Normally Scotland will throw at least three players in but losing five forwards to one Irish tackler means any following phase is going to have to be very wide to avoid a big gain line loss or a turnover. Why? Because if you’re losing five potential ball carriers to one potential defender, the next phase target will usually have to be far enough away to ensure you retain possession.
The bulk of Scotland’s forward carriers were in one half of the pitch so Ireland could gamble that the next phase would go wide-wide and Stockdale ended up scoring Ireland’s first try.
Scotland tend not to give the ball to a pod of two forwards, especially when those forwards are looking at a defensive alignment like this;
This was a calculated move by the Irish wide defence. Ringrose knew he could stay on the wide pod of four because whatever happened on this phase, the ball was more than likely going wide through a long – and slow – pass.
With Ringrose stepping on the “near” pod, Stockdale could attack the width of Horne’s pass and the rest is all Jacob Stockdale.
Ireland did a good job of slowing Scotland’s possession too. Look at the job that Healy and Leavy did on this crucial centre-field collision;
They prevent Barclay going straight to the floor and actively contest the ball to the point that Scotland lose two forwards and a key distributor from the next phase to retain possession. That gives Ireland time to number up in defence and pick their targets.
Watch the width on the key pass to Jones;
Ringrose is all over his line and Ireland make another good defensive stop.
We didn’t have it all our own way, for sure, and Scotland had two really good spells that should have seen at least two tries scored but overall, I thought Ireland were pretty comfortable winners in the end.
Ireland needed a bonus point win over a dangerous opponent and they achieved that aim – and the Championship – without too much drama. I’ll take that any day.
As per usual, players are rated based on their time on the pitch, if they were playing notably out of position, and on the overall curve of the team performance. I didn’t rate Keiran Marmion, Joey Carbery or Jordan Larmour due to being on the pitch for less than 10 minutes.
Rory Best, Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath, Andrew Porter, Iain Henderson, Devin Toner, Johnny Sexton
I thought these guys had very solid games that pushed Ireland onto the bonus point win.
Devin Toner and Rory Best had efficient games that helped retain possession and build phase pressure on Scotland. The starting two did well in the dirty work and helped the lineout get going after a wobbly start.
Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath, Andrew Porter and Iain Henderson had a decent impact off the bench. Cronin’s championship-clinching try was a great personal achievement for him after missing out on the November tests.
Johnny Sexton didn’t have a vintage game by his lofty standards but his average game is better than most 10s better days. He was gutting through an injury sustained a few weeks ago but still showed up for work on both sides of the ball. Gutsy.
Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, Peter O’Mahony, Dan Leavy, CJ Stander, Jordi Murphy, Conor Murray, Bundee Aki, Gary Ringrose, Jacob Stockdale, Keith Earls, Rob Kearney
The renaissance of Cian Healy this season has been astounding. Two years ago, many were wondering where the rampaging Healy of the early 10’s had gone but no more – Cian Healy is back to his best. His carrying, scrummaging, rucking and tackling had elite physicality written all over it.
Tadhg Furlong had the kind of game that would make you wonder what the hell he’ll look like when he hits his peak which, according to received wisdom is still four years away. He can do it all.
Our starting back row had another dominant outing, ably assisted by the hustle, carrying energy and rucking of Jordi Murphy off the bench.
Peter O’Mahony was superb at ruck time, made two really good jackals and was a massive part of Ireland’s heavy and wide defensive effort.
Dan Leavy made another mockery of his supposed third-choice openside status with an endlessly physical performance that had all the nuance that a top class #7 should have.
I keep saying because it keeps happening – CJ Stander is as durable, reliable and effective as they come. He draws 2+ defenders on every carry. He gets the ball back almost every time. He’s a reliable lineout option. He’s a powerful defender. He’s absolute quality. Ireland’s top carrier and joint top tackler. What an animal.
Conor Murray had another Conor Murray level game. He’s the greatest Irish scrumhalf I’ve ever seen, is comfortably the best scrumhalf in the Northern Hemisphere and the only guy who comes anywhere close to him is Aaron Smith. His passing – in both pass choice and execution – was absolutely excellent today, and the try he scored running over Hamish Watson was something a back row would have been proud of. This is the guy you’ll be telling your grandkids that you saw play live.
Our starting back three had very effective games.
Rob Kearney might be starting to push on in age but he still offers an awful lot at test level. He wasn’t perfect by any means but he was reliable, excellently positioned and rock solid when called upon.
Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale were mostly very solid in defence and stood up to the examination that Scotland can throw at a pair of wingers. Earls deserves his Six Nations medal like few players have ever deserved anything in this game and Jacob Stockdale just can’t seem to stop scoring tries in a green jersey. If he continues at this rate he’ll overhaul Brian O’Driscoll before he has 30 caps.
Our midfield pairing were really good in a game that they needed to perform defensively in.
Bundee Aki was so selfless here again. His ruck numbers were off the charts, as was his physicality in the heavy channels where he acted almost like another back row.
Gary Ringrose returned from injury and looked like he was never away. He tucked up the dangerous Huw Jones all afternoon, rarely slipped in defence and was a pass or two away from a flawless performance. What a third choice #13 to bring in, eh?
I thought James Ryan was really, really good here. What can you say about this guy? He’s 21 years of age, he’s got 18 professional starts, has never lost a professional game he’s played in and he’s already playing at a level in test rugby that a lot of guys never reach. He was superb here. He carried extremely well in the second channel. He rucked authoritatively. He was a superb option in the lineout and bothered Scotland’s throw all afternoon. He made 15 carries for 22 hard metres and tackled all game long while adding real power as tighthead lock.
All you can say is that he’s a special player and, if he keeps this up, the only way he doesn’t become a great of the game is if he’s denied by injury. That’s how good this kid is. Outstanding.