Sean McMahon reporting from Yokohama.
With 27 minutes on the clock, Ireland were 19-3 up in their toughest pool match of the World Cup, against opposition which have troubled them in the past and amid a backdrop which has questioned this squad’s mentality and ability on the field.
To be so on top so early on in this game was a signal that this squad means business. Of course, in the second half, as the rain poured, they managed the game superbly to secure a 27-3 victory.
This team has come into this World Cup under a level of scrutiny which we have not seen in the Joe Schmidt era. Although the squad improved in their final two warm-up games against Wales, there were still serious concerns and doubts stemming from three performances in 2019 – the two games against England and the clash with Wales in March.
How Ireland banished those demons in what was the biggest stage, with the most at stake, is commendable and bodes well for the weeks ahead.
Ireland were dominant in all facets of the game.
They secured a 100% return on their own scrum and lineout while they were able to disrupt their opponent’s setpiece – winning one scrum against the head and stealing a Stuart McInally throw.
Up front, Ireland out-muscled their near-neighbours at the breakdown which allowed Conor Murray to pull the strings in attack.
On the other side of the ball, Ireland’s line speed was excellent and when Scotland were able to catch Ireland on the fringes, the Irish players were able to scramble well enough to recover. To leave a side which has Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell, Tommy Seymour and Sean Maitland in their backline tryless is not something to be sniffed at.
And to do this without the experienced trio of Rob Kearney, Keith Earls and Robbie Henshaw, well, that makes it all the more impressive doesn’t it?
Bigger tests lie ahead, though.
Ireland, barring a catastrophic result in the next few weeks, will meet Rassie Erasmus’ Springboks on Sunday 20 October at Tokyo Stadium.
Joe Schmidt’s side will go into that match as underdogs but that’s not a bad thing.
In their 23-13 loss to the All Blacks on Saturday night, the Boks showed, as if anyone needed a reminder, that they are a force to be reckoned with. They forced the All Blacks into uncharacteristic mistakes in the opening 20 minutes and with a little bit more ruthlessness, could have extended that early 3-0 lead to something which could have changed the outcome of the game.
The problem, or opportunity for Ireland (depends on which way you look at it), is that their next three games are against Tier 2 opposition.
Was that Scotland performance enough to prepare for a quarter-final against one of the most physically imposing sides in the competition? Or does the opportunity of chopping and changing players over the next three weeks allow Ireland to be fresh for this era-deciding encounter?
There’s no definitive answer but what we can say is that Ireland did everything that they needed to do to beat Scotland and it will no doubt remind supporters and media alike that this team are on an upward curve as evidenced by their last three consecutive performances.
Aled Walters, Felix Jones, Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber – they all have knowledge of the Irish system. Ireland’s South African contingent of Jean Kleyn and CJ Stander – they can help in the other direction.
So many subplots.
It will be a fun week.
But there is still plenty of rugby to be played before that mouth-watering clash.