Six Nations: Five takeaways from Scotland v Ireland as Andy Farrell’s charges continue Grand Slam bid despite injury turmoil
Following a 22-7 victory for Ireland over Scotland in their Six Nations fixture, here’s our five takeaways from the game at Murrayfield on Sunday.
The top line
Ireland’s depth saw them overcome another strong showing from the host team, Scotland, at Murrayfield. In a game that was nip and tuck at half-time, the Irish defence put in a magnificent effort to hold the Scottish attack at bay whilst managing to eek out a couple of chances for their outstanding wingers, James Lowe and Mack Hansen.
It’s credit to both teams (and referee Luke Pearce) that the match was played at a breathless speed, with two of the outstanding backlines of world rugby going hammer and tongs at each other all afternoon.
Inevitably, Ireland just managed to play in the right areas more often than the Scots, enjoying a 59% share of the territory despite only achieving parity in possession, something down to the variety of kicking and handling that came from their half-backs and back three.
Exit strategy was a key focus of an intelligent Irish performance, and perhaps Scotland and their game controllers might just consider a little more pragmatism in field position if they’re to build upon a promising Six Nations campaign.
Put simply, Ireland’s possession saw 30% in the Scottish 22, and they only spent six minutes with the ball in hand in their half, a clear measure of how effective their exit and field position strategy was.
In the final analysis, three tries to one was probably a fair result for the superior Irish accuracy and execution but make no mistake, Scotland pushed them a lot harder than the scoreline suggested and perhaps might have had a better return for their efforts on another day.
The biggest concerns for both Scotland and Ireland moving forward will be the attrition rate of their players. Seven influential Test match performers went off with all sorts of injuries and ailments, three of them before half-time.
Scotland’s Richie Gray was forced off in the fifth minute, soon to be followed by Caelan Doris, who appeared to injure his hip extending to reach a George Turner overthrow. Shortly afterwards, starting hooker Dan Sheehan shuffled off with what appeared to be a shoulder injury, replaced by Ronan Kelleher, who himself went off with a pectoral injury five minutes into the second half, not to mention British and Irish Lions lock, Iain Henderson, who was also forced off.
To deal with all of the reshuffling of their team, using Josh van der Flier as a lineout thrower and prop Cian Healy as an emergency hooker, and still to emerge with a win was nothing short of staggering.
Van der Flier’s lineout work was commendable, losing only a couple from one overthrow and one piece of good front poaching, whilst Healy actually excelled at hooker, using his propping power to simply drive over the ball whilst gently wagging his leg to convince the referee that some form of strike had been made.
Back to the injuries, most worryingly for their teams, two massively influential figures also came off towards the end of the match in Garry Ringrose and Finn Russell. Ringrose suffered a head injury trying to tackle Blair Kinghorn and looks out of next week’s Grand Slam decider with England, whilst Russell seemed to be carrying a leg problem all game, and it’s hoped he’ll be fit for next weekend.
As an aside, Healy became one of a handful of Test players to have played both sides at prop and also at hooker in his career. Planet Rugby thinks Federico Mendez may have been the last to achieve this, but if you know better, please feel free to tell us in the comments!
Rugby stats can often be misleading, but when you look at tackle count and see seven Irish players topping the 10-hit mark, you can rightly deduce that there’s been an exceptional team effort in ‘D’.
However, the flip side of that is 25 missed tackles are far too many, and between them, the Irish midfield missed a grand total of 11, seven courtesy of Ringrose, who struggled to get into this game as he has in others.
For Scotland, it’s a similar picture; they managed another seven players into the teens and beyond, with Jack Dempsey smashing 23 and missing none in an impressive outing for his new country after moving from Australia under the new World Rugby qualification rules.
However, defence is more than just tackles, and in turnovers, Ireland were outstanding, nailing seven, with three of those coming from James Ryan and one from Hansen that resulted in a try for his side.
Their kick returns were long, powerful and intelligent, with Lowe’s and Hugo Keenan’s boots gaining some impressive metres for their side.
In a match with some wonderful attacking intent and skill, the variety and completeness of defence was always going to create the points of difference, and it was here that Ireland won the match, as they tackled their hearts out to achieve parity but gained a clear advantage in kick clearance and in turnovers.
With Hansen and Lowe in rampant form, running for well over 200 metres between them, it’s easy to eulogise about the speed men on the wing, but inside those two, some huge shifts went in from some of the forwards.
Tadhg Furlong has been sorely missed by Ireland, and today he carried relentlessly seven times for 42 metres, made 12 huge tackles and was back to his absolutely outstanding scrummaging best.
His fellow prop Andrew Porter also delivered a massive 80-minute shift, giving Zander Fagerson a torrid time up front and squeezing the life out of the Scottish scrummage, an area of great improvement for them in recent matches.
Behind them, Ryan was absolutely massive, 12 thundering runs for 81m and unlucky not to cross the whitewash on a couple of occasions. He also stole three Scottish lineouts – a testimony to his all-round skill, and in truth, he was unlucky not to get the player of the match award.
Very quietly, Bundee Aki also impressed, rock solid in defence and able to make some dominant hits on two very impressive Scottish centres. Aki is one of those players who goes under the radar, but as Ringrose seems sure to be unavailable next weekend, he will be essential for Ireland.
There will be aspects of Scotland’s play that will delight them; the work of their back-row, who matched one of the best Test units in the world for some 60 minutes, with huge shifts from all three of their men and, as noted before, an exceptional performance from Dempsey.
Elsewhere, they might need to consider the variety and execution of their attack; far too many times, they tried to run the ball through the hands when territory was the order of the day.
When Blair Kinghorn comes on, he always provides a counterpoint and, whilst it may seem churlish to criticise a player of Stuart Hogg’s stature on the day of his 100th cap, perhaps the secondary option of release he gives to Russell needs exploring, especially given the next Scottish fixture is a home tie against Italy.
Competing on the floor and breakdown is also an area where they came off second-best. Getting balance into their defence is key and for all the brilliance of their loosies, a jackaling presence seemed to be missing.
But Scotland’s biggest takeout is just to continue as they are; by all means, refine a few things here and there as part of their continuous improvement and in order to bolt on greater consistency into an all-round package. They have been outstanding this season, and whilst the scoreline didn’t go their way today, they looked like an outstanding tier one Test side.
READ MORE: Ireland one win from Grand Slam after battling victory over Scotland
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