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It's all about building momentum and Ireland are up and hobbling

A superb defensive display from Ireland yesterday was key to the victory. But injuries may take their toll ahead of this Saturday’s game against Wales.

Image: Gary Carr/INPHO

Updated Feb 2nd 2020, 1:11 PM

WHEN IT IS night and the floodlights are on, the Aviva Stadium shines with an intensity that you can only get from a blazing sun. Ordinarily, there’s something beckoning about those lights, especially on the first day of February when there aren’t too many other things to do.

But yesterday, you couldn’t wait to get away from them. It had been a strange match, absorbing in one sense; average in another. Ireland were poor but they were good. They were beaten up in so many collisions but they were defensively brilliant on their way to a 19-12 victory.

And sometimes getting the job done is an undervalued quality in sport. “If you want show, go to opera,” Giovanni Trapattoni, Ireland’s wily old soccer manager used to say. “But this isn’t theatre. Here, you only get score. The history books only print result.”

He’s right to an extent. How often to you hear people hark back to the Ireland-England game in 2009 or even the Murrayfield leg of that grand slam year? Nine years on, the Johnny Sexton drop-goal became part of Irish rugby folklore, not the sloppy penalty he missed 15 minutes earlier.

But there’s a context here that we need to remind ourselves of. The underlying theme of the week had been one of change. The players were enjoying themselves more, we were constantly told. Things were fresh and new.

Well, they were certainly different yesterday. Under those Aviva floodlights, the shadow of Joe Schmidt lurked.

What would he have made of this kind of display? Those infamous Monday morning review sessions would probably have stretched beyond lunch.

These players may be glad to be rid of those but the Irish public miss their old coach more than the men who used to work under him. Under Schmidt, the team tended to win the collisions against sides like Scotland – and, 2017 aside – they tended to win these games a lot more comfortably.

There was nothing comfortable about yesterday. Had Stuart Hogg dived over the line; had Gregor Townsend’s backs trusted their instincts a little more in the red zone, then it would have been a different story.

stuart-hogg-celebrates-after-believing-he-had-scored-a-try Hogg celebrates believing he has scored. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

But Andy Farrell wasn’t spoofing us when he said you could pick numerous incidents from the game that were almost as decisive. All those little moments added up to something big – the ground-covering run by Sexton to intercept Adam Hastings’ hack-through; the last minute turnover by CJ Stander, the second-minute steal by Caelan Doris. You had try-saving tackles by Devin Toner, Josh van der Flier and James Ryan. You had Tadhg Furlong battling exhaustion, Rob Herring surprising one or two people, Stander surprising a few more.

“All week we spoke to the lads and said, ‘make sure you stand for something’,” Farrell said. Up until the ninth minute, the only thing they’d stood for was the national anthem.

But then they clicked, Ryan delivering to Cian Healy; the Scottish defence fooled by Jordan Larmour’s decoy run, Healy using the softest of touches to feed his pass to Conor Murray instead. Murray passed, Sexton scored and Ireland were up and running.

Or so we thought. All these injuries piled up – Doris, Kilcoyne, Ringrose and Furlong forming a lengthy queue to the physio’s door. In reality, Ireland are up and hobbling.

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tadhg-furlong-leaves-the-field-with-an-injury Furlong limps off, one of four Irish injuries from yesterday. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Wales are next. “We need to be quite a bit better,” Farrell said. And he’s right – on one side of the ball, they do.

But defensively, they were good yesterday: organised, committed, brave. You can be guilty of underselling those qualities although Farrell made a convincing pitch when he spoke of true Irish grit, digging deep and showing fight.

There’s something compelling about that northern accent of his, reminding you of Jack Charlton’s growl around this place when it was a little less modern than it is now. Charlton, famously, used to get his players’ names mixed up – once referring to Liam Brady as Ian Brady – the Moors murderer, and to Chris Morris as Jody Morris.

In a continuation of that theme, Farrell spent a few seconds talking up Freddie Burns’ contribution to training before his auto-correct kicked in. “Freddie’s good, like, but his brother Billy is the one I meant.”

He spoke positively about how his team played without lurking into boxing promoter mode and overselling a performance. By now we all know to trust what we see rather than what we hear.

And for all the grit and heart, there were flaws. Jordan Larmour excites but needs to vary his running game up with a kick or two or else he’ll become predictable; the wings were underemployed; the Irish pack was good but Scotland’s forwards were better.

jordan-larmour-with-scotlands-adam-hastings Larmour needs to add variety to his game. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Yeah but look, it’s good to start with a win,” said Robbie Henshaw afterwards. “Like fair play to Scotland, they brought their A game and gave us a tough, physical test. The whole game was stop-start. It was difficult to impose yourself on it but when we got the ball, we did well.”

The key words in that sentence were ‘when we got the ball’. Under Schmidt, they used to dominate it. Yesterday they didn’t. That has to change, although Henshaw more or less admitted as much. “We let them away with it at times, we should have pinned them more into the corner, should have got more points.”

Still, they ended up with enough of them. The scrum may have creaked, the Scots may have shown more in attack but defensively that was an exceptional Irish display yesterday.

And it’s all about winning, remember – not about the show.

Isn’t it?

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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