In the build-up to this match, Ireland’s coach Declan Kidney had expressed his belief that the match statistics were none too important, especially those that deal with possession and territory.
After all, he mused, Scotland had trounced Italy despite having the ball for just 38 per cent of the time it was in play. It ain’t how much you get, it’s what you do with it that’s important.
The limits of that theory were tested to destruction yesterday at Murrayfield. Just as they have been in every match in this championship to date the Scots’ forwards were a distant second in the battle for the ball. Ireland will look at the surfeit of possession they enjoyed and wonder why they weren’t toasting the win with champagne instead of Lucozade at half-time.
We had to wait until the 50th minute of this match before there was a set piece inside the Ireland twenty-two, the game was so one-sided that had it been a boxing match the referee would have stopped it long before the halfway stage, presuming of course that Scott Johnson had not already thrown in the towel. Ireland enjoyed 71 per cent of possession, they made 124 carries compared to Scotland’s 35 and they won 106 rucks while Scotland won 29. Still Kidney’s men couldn’t manufacture a victory and it may cost the coach dear.
The visitors had so much ball during an utterly one-sided first half that they tried every move in the playbook, twice, and still only had one miserable penalty from Paddy Jackson to show for all their efforts.
On several occasions Ireland opted to ignore a shot at goal and instead kick the ball into the corner. They did this even inside the final five minutes when they might have kicked a penalty and still had time to work their way back up field in search of the winner.
Every time they kicked to the corner, the Scots picked up the gauntlet and defended their line with a bravery bordering on the heroic but we’ve seen that happen before and not so long ago.
Hasn’t Jamie Heaslip seen a video of the Tongan match in Aberdeen or did the skipper simply have no faith in Paddy Jackson’s boot? If not, you can hardly blame him as the Irish stand-off managed just one successful kick from four attempts.
The first-up tackling by Scotland was woeful, and centre Luke Marshall celebrated his debut with several surging runs that embarrassed the home defence.
Luckily for the Scots their scramble defence, with Sean Maitland to the fore, was every bit as determined and competent as their front line defence was porous and flaky.
Tackles were missed in part because of the impressive line speed that the Scots generated throughout this game, often making tackles well behind the gain line, but also because the selectors have picked a team to compete in the set piece, which they did magnificently. The coaches are ensuring that the basic building blocks of a competitive team are in place and that means a solid scrum and lineout. The Scots drove the first few scrums and milked penalties at both of them with a concerted shunt to which the Irish tight five had no answer.
Geoff Cross has never played so well for Scotland and might never play as well again. Quite why he was taken off is a mystery and it almost cost Scotland dear as the tighthead side collapsed in that final scrum and it handed Ireland a lifeline they were unable to use.
The lineout was equally impressive winning four Irish throws. On several occasions early on, Ireland kicked to touch and, on the first such effort, big Jim Hamilton read it beautifully and, on another occasion, Rob Harley got a hand in the mix.
So far, so impressive but in open play the Scots were beyond awful.
They were unable to run through more than one or two phases without the ball without being turned over or making an unforced error.
Time and again the Scots simply spilled the ball or knocked on. When you can’t play phase rugby, you can’t play rugby and there were times when Scotland were in that unhappy position. The fact that they won says heaps for the collective spirit of this squad but far too many of the bare necessities of rugby life were missing. Baloo himself would have made a better job of holding onto the ball than some of the Scots’ forwards.
Kelly Brown and Co. won but they’d be fools to think they can get away with this again. Beating the statistics and Italy at the same time was a shock, being on the wrong side of the stats against an decent Irish team and still walking away with the win is pushing your luck.
Most importantly those lop-sided statistics only tell half the story because, staring at a 8-0 deficit early in the second half, the Scots only got themselves back into this game by setting up camp in Ireland’s half of the field and running through the phases. . . not many but just enough to earn them the four penalties that won them this match.