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Thursday 23 March 2017

Grand Slam goes at first hurdle

Ireland dominate everywhere except on the final scoreboard

Dejected Ireland players Rory Best (left) and Jamie Heaslip leave the pitch after the Six Nations defeat by Scotland at Murrayfield Pics: Sportsfile
Dejected Ireland players Rory Best (left) and Jamie Heaslip leave the pitch after the Six Nations defeat by Scotland at Murrayfield Pics: Sportsfile

The big blue banana skin was simply too slippery for Ireland to keep their feet. It was right there in Jamie Heaslip's attempted offload to Robbie Henshaw beneath the Scottish posts.

Conor Murray seized on a loose ball as rampant Ireland looked to turn the knife.

Heaslip often gives the impression of a man who would rather sell his soul than risk an offload.

He took Murray's pass and steamed towards the line only for his late floater to be swiped by Sean Maitland just after Henshaw slipped over.

Ireland were out-manoeuvred by a resurgent Scotland for almost the entire first-half and the tail-end of the second to come out of Murrayfield with just a losing bonus-point.

Sagging spirits

Coach Joe Schmidt did what he could to lift the sagging spirits of a nation which feasted on a diet of high hope since November.

How many times have Ireland come to the beginning of the Six Nations with realistic reason to whisper those two words - Grand Slam. They have been many - more than we wish to recall.

How many times have Ireland delivered on the promise of their play? Twice. 1948 and 2009.

The golden generation, as they were dubbed, had to wait their turn and, even then, it all came down to the mercy of Stephen Jones' under-hit penalty.

Paddy Wallace was the man found guilty of a transgression he was not fully punished for on that day.

This time, Paddy Jackson failed to demonstrate enough urgency to referee Romain Poite that he was vacating a ruck.

It was an unforgivable sin in light of how Ireland had bounded back from a 16-point deficit (21-5) after half-an-hour.

Out-half Jackson played his part in taking responsibility for 12 of the 17 unanswered points that moved Ireland one point in front. It looked like they had the momentum and the renewed confidence to drive on.

Paddy Jackson in action against Scotland’s Mark Bennett at Murrayfield Picture: Sportsfile
Paddy Jackson in action against Scotland’s Mark Bennett at Murrayfield Picture: Sportsfile

In hindsight, there was a strong similarity to be drawn between what happened in Murrayfield on Saturday and what transpired against Argentina in the World Cup quarter-final, and not just in how they were gutted in the outside channels.

They dropped so far behind that it took a super-human effort to make up the difference. When they finally got there from Jackson's fine try and conversion on the hour, they just didn't have enough left in the tank to keep the engine motoring.

"It's obviously far from ideal, the defeat it pretty tough to take," said Schmidt.

"We knew that these guys had improved and I think VC (Vern Cotter) has done a great job with them."

It is a serious setback to Schmidt's drive for three championships in four seasons.

"The championship now looks like a very tough championship to win," he reflected. "But we know we're not out of it. We did pick up that bonus point."

Dominant

The post-match statistics reveal just how dominant Ireland were in their ownership of the ball.

It was just what they did with it that came back to haunt them.

For example, they dominated possession (59%-41%), territory (63%-37%), metres-made (485-291), line-breaks (12-4), defenders beaten (32-8) and even tackles missed (8-32).

It was what they did after getting in behind Scotland that undid all their good work.

Keith Earls' try that never was from Rob Kearney's muscular burst and foot-in-touch and Heaslip's ill-advised offload to the fallen Henshaw were heart-breakers.

The Ireland coach was already turning his thoughts towards a win-or-bust game in Italy at the end of the week.

"I think we've just got to try to go to Italy now and make sure we've got five or six points out of these first two games.

"We have to try to really get some momentum into the back half of the championship."

It was just one of those days and one of those games in which Ireland didn't start well.

The omen was there even before they reached the stadium.

"We were certainly on time leaving the hotel, it just took a long time," said Joe Schmidt, on their late arrival.

"Those things happen.

"It's certainly not an excuse for being late to things in the first half. It's just probably a reflection of how the start of the day went for us."

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