The first hour of this match was the best I have ever seen Ireland play. Not only were they absolutely clinical in taking nearly all their chances, but they defended as if their lives depended on it. 36-0 and 6 tries to nil after an hour against a very good side like Scotland is the stuff that dreams are made of.
Ireland had a dream start scoring an excellent try off their first real attack thanks to Garry Ringrose doing what he so good at – wrong footing defenders and making space for those outside him. The 13 channel is also extremely difficult to defend, and it was instructive that Ireland conceded a late try when he was no longer there to police it.
Bundee Aki is arguably Ireland’s player of the tournament so far, but the 13 space is not his natural habitat. Losing both wingers to injury would have tested any side, and Ireland lost their shape in defence just a little bit when they went off. A yard is all it takes at this level to concede a line break, and Scotland took both their chances extremely well.
Hat’s off to an excellent Scottish side who never gave up even after what must have been a very demoralising start. 36-0 is a humiliation they did not deserve. Going down so early forced them to chase the score and meant they couldn’t just kick for goal when the opportunities came. But Ireland put their line-out woes against South Africa behind them and won their lineouts 12-0 while O’Mahony snaffled three of Scotland’s throws.
But it was Ireland’s defence, after going 5-0 up that ultimately decided this contest. Scotland put together some great attacking play and continuity but couldn’t find a way past the Irish defence. They dominated both territory and possession at this stage and Finn Russell was unveiling his full box of tricks. Scotland’s dangerous backs were well contained.
When Ireland scored again through Keenan in what was almost a replica of the first try, it was like a dagger to the heart of Scottish ambition. To be 12-0 down having played so well must have been utterly demoralising, and yet they never gave up.
Ireland were now firing on all cylinders and Henderson, who had an excellent game, showed they could also score up front. There was simply nowhere for this Scotland side to hide, not helped by Captain Richie’s early departure with a shoulder injury. Keenan scored Ireland’s fourth and bonus point try in what is now the traditional slot just before half-time – how often have we seen Leinster and Ireland do this?
With the bonus point secured and leading 26-0 at half time, the match is all but over. Scotland’s frustrations come to the surface when Ollie Smith performs a dirty little off the ball trip on Sexton and George Turner runs over and starts pushing Sexton all over the place, clearly trying to unsettle the Irish Captain. Pierre Schoeman pushes Sheehan over an advertising hoarding quite dangerously and Scotland are lucky to escape with just one yellow card.
Sheehan makes the most appropriate response by scoring a great try – again out wide down the left. New Zealand will have noted that nearly all of Ireland’s best attacking moments are from right to left and are scored on the wing. Time to work on our left to right passing movements!
Ireland have lost both their wings by this stage, with Hansen off for a HIA and then a calf injury and Lowe with an eye injury. McCloskey has slotted in seamlessly at 12 with Aki moving to 13 and Ringrose onto the wing. Murray has come on for Hansen with Gibson Park moving to the wing. Just as in the last match against Scotland in the 6 Nations, where Healy ended up playing hooker and Van Der Flier became line-out thrower, Ireland are having to adapt on the hoof.
The Irish “bomb squad” of Bealham, Kelleher, Kilcoyne, Ryan and Conan come on together and add new energy to the forward effort. It is vital that the front liners are rested prior to the New Zealand match and the bench players need more game time. This is Conan’s first appearance in the World cup after his unfortunate foot injury.
Crowley has also come on for Sexton and drops a sweet cross-field kick under pressure precisely into Ringrose’s arms for the sixth try. This is threatening to become an utter humiliation for Scotland, but Tuipuloti manages to get a pass away outside Henderson and Ashman scores a good try in the corner.
Perhaps Ireland have dropped their intensity just a little, and Jones gets outside and past Aki to set up a fine try for Price. We always knew Scotland are capable of moments like this. The problem is that it took them until the 64th. and 65th. minutes to make the breakthrough, long after the match had been decided.
Ireland were denied a seventh try by Bealham due to a slight knock-on in the dying moments, and the match is over. For over an hour, it was almost perfect for Ireland, but they will need to play at the top of their game for the full 80 minutes against the All Blacks.
Let us hope that Ireland’s fate isn’t decided, once again by injuries to key players. Hansen apparently passed his HIA but went off immediately afterwards due to a calf issue. Lowe got a serious bang to the eye but his vision was recovering afterwards. Let’s hope it’s not a detached retina or similar. Ryan suffered what looks like a re-occurrence of a wrist injury which has troubled him, and Furlong seemed to have some shoulder issue. He is the one star player who has yet to be at his best in this competition. Let us hope it is not a shoulder injury which is undermining his effectiveness.
That said, all the subs did well. Conan got some valuable game time, and Player of the Match, Gibson Park, showed his versatility on the wing. McCloskey made light of the absence of Henshaw and Crowley once again impressed. Kelleher overcame his lineout woes and Sheehan is back to his effervescent best. Quite a few players were outstanding and contenders for the Person of the Match award, but for me Van Der Flier with 22 tackles ad Ringrose at 13 are vital components of the team.
Once again, a match involving Ireland required little reference to the TMO and very few disciplinary issues. Nic Berry is to be congratulated on his refereeing of the match. Ireland won the penalty count 7-11, line-outs 15-9, and turnovers 7-3, but were behind on every other metric except where it mattered – on the scoreboard. As against South Africa, it is the clinical nature of this team in taking their scoring chances that distinguishes them from the rest.
A well-rested New Zealand now await to ambush us in the quarter final. It is some turn-around in our fortunes that we are now regarded as favourites. We may yet have to beat them by digging deeper into our squad. O’Brien has yet to play a minute in the World Cup but may have to cover for Lowe, with Earls covering for Hansen. Baird and McCarthy are fine prospects, but not yet in the same class as Ryan. Let’s hope Furlong’s shoulder holds up.
For me, the match against the All-Blacks is still a 50-50 match to be decided on very small margins. We are certainly battle hardened at this stage, but will we be battle weary in the final ten minutes of what looks like a match-up fit for a final? I would put nothing past this team and the positive mentality Farrell has inculcated. They have won nothing yet and have still to break their quarterfinal glass ceiling.
But they could hardly be performing any better at this stage in the tournament. Bring it on!
Frank Schnittger is a former senior executive in a leading multinational in Dublin and London and has a Masters in Peace Studies from Trinity College. He has been a director of a number of charitable and voluntary organisations in the community development, education, holistic addiction treatment and restorative justice sectors. He is editor of the European Tribune and a moderator of the Irish Rugby Fan Forum.