Ireland may have fallen at the first hurdle in their bid to land a Grand Slam, but Joe Schmidt’s side can take confidence from the fact that they are more than capable of addressing the deficiencies exposed by Scotland.
With Italy up next and the first Six Nations rest weekend to follow, Ireland have plenty of time to reflect on their failings in Murrayfield before facing France on February 25.
Addressing the lack of balance in the back row is the first priority for Schmidt. In Murrayfield, Scotland dominated the breakdown by taking advantage of Ireland’s reluctance to support the ball carrier and clean out rucks.
Throughout the first half, Ireland’s carriers took the ball into contact without having players immediately on hand to protect possession. At the very least, this allowed Scotland to stimy Ireland’s attacking momentum, or at worst, gain turnovers or penalties.
Consequently, Ireland became very predictable in attack during the opening 40 minutes, as Scotland’s defence had enough time to identify Ireland’s subsequent ball carriers and place two or three defenders in their path.
In turn, without any go-forward ball, Ireland became very lateral, almost shifting possession from left to right out of desperation. Schmidt addressed this issue at half-time, and threw bodies into the breakdown in order create clean ball during the second half.
As a result, space began to be created as Ireland established an attacking rhythm, allowing Sean O’Brien, CJ Stander and Jamie Heaslip to identify weak links in an unprepared Scottish defence.
However, looking through the pack that started for Ireland, it is clear that too many ball carriers were selected and not enough players designated to clear out.
Jack McGrath, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, Stander, O’Brien and Heaslip are all players whose attributes are best suited to carry the ball into contact, not protecting possession from would be poachers.
Although Donnacha Ryan and Peter O’Mahony were missed in this regard, Ireland really need to have a traditional openside on the field who offers immediate support to the ball carrier.
It’s not like Ireland don’t have specialist opensides at their disposal. Included in the Irish squad are; Josh van der Flier, Tommy O’Donnell and Dan Leavy, while Schmidt can also call on Jake Heenan and Chris Henry if necessary.
The back row also needs to contain a line out option in future. although Rory Best did pick out Stander and Heaslip on six occasions during the game, neither are natural jumpers.
This made it easy for Richie and Jonny Gray to put pressure on Devin Toner and Henderson at the set piece, and Ireland’s line out stuttered throughout the game as a result.
Again, this is an easy fix for Schmidt, who only has to switch Henderson into the back row or select Peter O’Mahony on the blind side.
Although such a selection would have knock-on effects for the remainder of the back row, Ireland need to address the lack of balance in that area before facing a dangerous looking French side.
While Ireland can solve the above issues through selection, their defensive frailties were once again exposed by Scotland. Despite receiving a great deal of praise following Ireland’s tour of South Africa, Andy Farrell’s defensive system has come under increasing criticism since the autumn.
In their last five games, Ireland have conceded 16 tries, with most of them coming in the wider channels where Farrell’s system has been exposed time and again. Scotland for example, were able to fix Ireland’s midfield defence before allowing Stuart Hogg the freedom to exploit overlaps on the outside.
It was all a little too easy, and will require a complete re-think from Farrell and the rest of the Irish coaching staff if they are going to address the issue before facing a French side that moved the ball wide with regularity against England.
Alan Drumm, Pundit Arena
On this week’s edition of The Oval Office, we discuss all things Six Nations with George Hook, Paul Williams from Rugby World magazine and former Ireland u-20 international Adam McBurney.