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Ireland well positioned to claim Six Nations but Schmidt concerned about defence

After Scotland’s win over England, Ireland are five points clear at the top of the table.

THE INCREDIBLE SCENES at Murrayfield yesterday evening were good news for Scottish rugby but also a boost for Joe Schmidt and Ireland.

John Barclay led the breakdown charge as Finn Russell found his form, and while Scotland’s 25-13 win over back-to-back champions England means they will come to Dublin in two weekends with momentum, it also leaves Ireland out in front at the top of the Six Nations table.

Rob Kearney celebrates with teammates Jacob Stockdale's second try Ireland celebrate Jacob Stockdale's match-clinching score. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Schmidt’s side are now five points clear of second-placed England and in a superb position from which to claim their first championship success since 2015.

Yesterday’s result in Edinburgh shows us that nothing can be taken for granted and Schmidt will give Scotland every bit of respect they deserve, but this is now a Six Nations that Ireland should not let slip.

They will be favourites at home against Gregor Townsend’s Scots on 10 March and a win would likely mean that Ireland wouldn’t even have to beat England on the final day of the championship in Twickenham to secure the Six Nations title.

Schmidt won’t allow his players to consider a possible showdown with the English before they have confronted Scotland, but the chance for a title success is obvious even to those who fear the Scots will travel to Dublin with dangerous intent.

If Schmidt’s side are to overcome the next hurdle, it seems their defence will be the most important issue to remedy in the coming fortnight.

The Ireland head coach made his unhappiness with Ireland’s defensive effort against the Welsh in a bonus-point 37-27 win very clear in his post-match press conference, after his players conceded three tries at home for the second game in a row.

The three scores given up to Italy were soft and while Wales deserve credit for their attacking prowess in Dublin, defence coach Andy Farrell will be a busy man ahead of the Scotland clash.

Ireland had already conceded a rather straightforward try to Gareth Davies in the first-half, but Schmidt was especially aggrieved by the scores Aaron Shingler and Steff Evans got in the final quarter to put Ireland’s win in real doubt.

Joe Schmidt with Warren Gatland before the game Schmidt with Warren Gatland before yesterday's game. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“The frustrating thing was that when we got to 27-13 that we didn’t keep that margin or grow it,” said Schmidt. “They worked their way back into the game with some defending that we know we can do better.

“I’m sure that we will do better. I think that Andy Farrell does an unbelievably good job.

“One of the things about it is that when you do make personnel changes off the bench, we had guys making slightly different decisions, we got disconnected and it allowed them a fair bit of latitude to score tries and they scored some good ones.”

Evans and Shingler both scored their tries in the wide channels, an area that has caused concern for Ireland intermittently over past seasons under Farrell and Schmidt.

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The Ireland boss was asked if the Welsh success out wide is a concern ahead of playing a Scotland team that possesses a number of excellent back three players.

“It is, obviously with the runners Scotland have – the Stuart Hoggs, the Tommy Seymours, the likes of Sean Maitland, who are very quick athletes,” said Schmidt. “It’s always a concern.

“I think we helped them a little bit. We didn’t stay connected, we had guys doing different things and I think we can repair a lot of that over the next two weeks. It was frustrating against Italy and it was frustrating today, albeit with lots of positives about eight tries and five tries [scored].

“What we are creating is keeping us safe from losses, but we’ve got to do better than conceding three tries two weekends in a row.”

Aaron Shingler scores a try Aaron Shingler scored out wide. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Those try-scoring positives are certainly encouraging for Ireland but to have given up seven tries already in this championship will not be acceptable to captain Rory Best and his players.

The hooker said there were mixed feelings after the win against Wales, one that leaves Ireland with plenty to work on before Scotland come to town.

“I think we’ll look at a game where we probably, at times, had some of the best attack that we’ve had, certainly this season,” said Best.

“At times, we probably got a little bit narrow in defence and we probably got narrow because a few times we smashed them in defence but a couple of times we leaked a few yards and then it’s hard to get your width.

“There was lots to be happy with, but we have to get better week-on-week in this competition.”

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Murray Kinsella

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