Ireland versus Scotland: always scrappy, always confrontational and sometimes tense – and so it proved. Yesterday’s match was one of missed chances and frustrating mistakes, but also one of immense will, exertion and defiance.
It was a proper Northern hemisphere clash. It felt incredibly ‘Six Nations.’ Very ‘cold February night.’ Both sides struggled for coherence and accuracy, but good lord did they want to win.
Matches like these always pivot on big moments, standout individuals, leadership decisions – at the Aviva on Saturday it was no different. In many ways, this was a game that can be distilled into a clash of two captains.
One won by the steely intensity and a ruthlessness of Johnny Sexton. Whilst Sexton scored all his sides 19 points, Stuart Hogg, for all his effort and invention, ultimately suffered from one of those inexplicable, inexcusable mental lapses, knocking the ball on over the line when it seemed easier to score.
To single Hogg out for criticism would be unfair. Indeed, there was much for he and Scotland to be satisfied with here, but, ultimately, matches like this hinge on big moments, and if Scotland want to start winning them, they cannot make such errors.
If Scotland were naïve and unlucky, Ireland felt like a team who knew how to win and win ugly if they needed to. Their defence was inspired. Utterly defiant. It was driven by all the anger and grit and organisation you expect from an Andy Farrell coached side. He is a fantastic motivator – his famous ‘Hurt Arena’ speech from the Lions tour is worth looking up if you haven’t seen it – and yesterday’s game felt like a statement of intent on that part.
If nothing else Farrell’s Ireland are to be hard; their defence will be their bedrock.
They also, and this was absolutely fundamental, won the battle at half back and back row. Those two units decide matches. Murray and Sexton were simply more accurate, more savvy, better, than Ali Price and Adam Hastings. Coming off the bench, John Cooney suffocated Scotland with some wonderful kicking, bringing a composure and a control absent from Scotland’s frenzied game.
I would have picked Cooney to start this match, and my opinion has not changed, but, regardless, what a player to bring on.
One player who did start, the young Caelan Doris, was sadly forced off injured early, but in his absence the Irish back row did not suffer. All in all, they were superior. Hamish Watson may have had a lot to say about that – he is a class above most of his teammates, an out and out scrapper of a seven, and was truly impressive yesterday – but on his own it was not enough.
I am no CJ Stander fan, but at number eight with six on his back he was immense, and his turnover at the end was another of those critical moments that went Ireland’s way.
Like Stander himself Ireland weren’t flashy, but they were hard, and they won. That is all that matters for now. Likewise, perhaps it was the team who lost that played the better rugby, but they have nobody to blame but themselves.
Written by Joe Ronan.