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Back row dominant, defensive work-ons and more Ireland talking points

Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray looked classy for long periods of the game.
Mar 19th 2016, 9:07 PM 29,217 45

IRELAND CONCLUDED THEIR Six Nations campaign with a 35-25 win over Scotland at the Aviva Stadium.

Read our match report here.  

Rip-roaring conclusion

The build-up to this one was understandably low key, but the off-the-ball handbags that continued into the closing minutes demonstrated that both sets of players were throwing everything into their final Six Nations clash of the season.

Ireland players congratulate try scorer Devin Toner Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Ireland were dominant in the first half, showing impressive control and organisation to build a lead that would have been much greater but for Stuart Hogg’s sublime flash of attacking ability.

At the interval, it appeared that Joe Schmidt’s side would be able to drive on to a comfortable victory, but Vern Cotter’s Scots weren’t done, even after a six-day turnaround post-France.

Devin Toner’s try in the 68th minute gave Ireland a 15-point margin and appeared to wrap the game up as a contest, but the intensity, niggle and volume only rose from there. A few good old-fashioned fracas brought the Aviva Stadium crowd into the kind of voice that we hadn’t heard too often in this championship.

With seven tries in total from both sides, Ireland wrapping up third place, and a host of excellent individual displays, most of the spectators will have gone home happy. Onwards and upwards for Schmidt’s men.

Back row boss the Scots

Man of the match Jamie Heaslip was outstanding for Ireland, though CJ Stander and Tommy O’Donnell weren’t too far behind.

Jamie Heaslip Source: Colm O'Neill/INPHO

The number eight was king of the offload at the Aviva Stadium, setting Toner up for his first Ireland try with a special effort out of the tackle. There was another delicate beauty of an offload earlier in the second half, as Heaslip freed to ball to the onrushing O’Donnell.

Heaslip’s carrying quality was immense too, allowing him to threaten with that offload. Stander was an absolute truncheon for Ireland with ball in hand too, racking up 33 metres gained in 22 carries.

His clever finish in the first half showed the more thoughtful side of Stander’s game, as did a handful of slipped passes to carriers in better positions than himself.

O’Donnell didn’t quite manage to get in Pascal Gaüzère’s good books at ruck time, but he put in a typically tireless shift before making way for Rhys Ruddock. The Munster openside, having been frustrated by the selection of Josh van der Flier in the last two games, was a defensive leader with 11 excellent tackles.

Halfbacks humming

Johnny Sexton’s level of control in the first half crippled the Scots, with Ireland’s out-half utterly composed as he picked out his passes and kicks. The clever diagonal chip that led to Keith Earls’ try showed Sexton’s incredibly keen eye for space yet again.

Johnny Sexton with John Barclay and John Hardie Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

While the perfectionist in Sexton will be frustrated not to have kicked every chance off the tee, there were some high-quality place kicks in a 75% success rate. Having come into this championship with doubts surrounding his form and fitness, Sexton has been immense.

The only disappointment was his milking of Alex Dunbar’s dangerous clearout. The card was likely coming, but Sexton’s reaction was over the top. A yellow card later in the game was deserved too as Ireland’s discipline crumbled.

Alongside Sexton, Murray was again muscular and sharp. He is making a useful habit of finishing attacking pressure from close-range, darting over for his third try of the championship in the second half.

As Ireland and Schmidt look towards the big challenges that the remainder of 2016 holds, having such an assured, skillful, intelligent and commanding pair of halfbacks is one reason for optimism.

Hogg’s stunner

In a first half that saw Ireland dominate possession and territory, it took a moment of pure brilliance from Hogg to offer Cotter’s side a lifeline.

Stuart Hogg breaks free to score the first try Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Murray boxed kicked too long, Andrew Trimble hesitated on the chase and stood off, and Hogg did not need to be asked twice. The rapid fullback immediately had his head up scanning for the chink in Ireland’s defensive armour as be crossed over the half-way line.

Mike Ross trundling on the drift was the target Hogg was searching for, particularly with Rory Best the next man in the defensive line. The Glasgow Warrior scorched outside Ross and with Ireland thin in the backfield, he was never going to be caught.

Vision, pace, positivity and intelligence; one of the tries of the championship.

Bring on Andy Farrell

Giving up three tries to the Scots will rankle with Joe Schmidt and his players. The Kiwi head coach is likely to carry out a thorough and critical review of the defensive display, as Ireland became passive in the second half.

Richie Gray celebrates scoring a try Source: Colm O'Neill/INPHO

Richie Gray’s score will have frustrated, as Ireland got caught numbers short under their own posts and shot up without cohesion in their line. The lumbering lock strolled in, but the damage was really done on the preceding phases.

Expecting Ireland to be perfect over 80 minutes it too much, but their defence will face far greater tests against the Springboks and New Zealand later this year. The arrival of Andy Farrell as defence coach on 1 April is timely.

The Englishman will bring a fresh voice, energy and technical excellence as a coach. He is most famed for the aggression of his defensive systems and that is something Ireland lack in theirs at present. It could be a match made in heaven.

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