The outstanding performance last weekend was unquestionably Ireland’s. To win in South Africa is very difficult. To do so with only 14 on the field for an hour is remarkable. When you consider that Joe Schmidt could almost field another XV of injured players such as the Kearney brothers, Tommy Bowe, Simon Zebo, Luke Fitzgerald, Jonny Sexton, Cian Healy, Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony, the strength in depth of Irish rugby is undeniable. The commitment displayed last Saturday wasn’t surprising; the calmness throughout the match, especially in its last quarter, was very impressive.
I’ve never really approved of man-of-the-match awards, but they’re here to stay, and Paddy Jackson was a worthy recipient. He hasn’t played much international rugby since being first capped when very young. Jonny Sexton has kept a tight hold on the number 10 jersey, while Ian Madigan has been preferred on the bench because he is as comfortable at 12 as at 10. But Jackson has been consistently good this season for Ulster, with outstanding performances against Toulouse in the European Cup and Leinster in the Pro 12. He has always been a skilful player; now he looks a very composed one too. I’d say there isn’t much to choose between him and Sexton.
After their fine win against Australia, our under-20 side suffered a very nasty car crash against England. So it was good to see them recovering and holding their nerve to beat Italy. Some remarked that there was an element of fortune in two of their tries, because they were made possible by Italian mistakes. So what? A lot of tries are made possible by defensive errors; example, Jonathan Joseph’s for England against Australia. The point surely is that players should be sufficiently alert to seize any opportunity offered.
The England under-20 match showed once again just how unsatisfactory the current scrum laws, and referees’ interpretation of them, really are. If one side has a dominant scrum, able to hold the ball and push their opponents backwards till the referee awards a penalty, what are really minor mistakes – a knock-on, forward pass, or squint throw at the line-out – may be severely punished. A knock-on in your own half really shouldn’t cost you three points, but, in effect, it often does.
On account of injuries – and perhaps the demanding schedule – John Dalziel had to field a much weakened side against England. This demonstrated sadly that, for all the improvement in our age-group rugby, we still badly lack strength in depth. Back in the amateur days Andy Irvine remarked that while Scotland’s first XV could take on anyone with a chance of winning, an ‘A’ team might lose to pretty well anyone, and a ‘B’ team would be hammered . I don’t know that things are much different now.
With Ireland, England and Wales engaged in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand respectively, Scotland’s two internationals against Japan obviously represent a considerably more modest assignment, all the more so because several stars of Japan’s World Cup XV are missing. It is of course rare for any coach to have everyone fit, and Scotland are themselves without Finn Russell and Alex Dunbar, key members of our back division. Nevertheless Vern Cotter has named the strongest side available to him – the decision to give Damien Hoyland a first cap on the wing rather than bringing back Sean Maitland is hardly a gamble. Hoyland may have neither Maitland’s experience nor his silky skills, but he is the kind of big, fast and powerful wing that coaches seem mostly to favour these days. It’s understandable. There is less space on the field than there used to be. So there is often more chance for a big winger to barge through a tackle than for a smaller, lighter one to evade the tackler. This is a change which may not improve the game but it’s how it is.
Otherwise it will be interesting to see how Ruaridh Jackson fares in his first start at fly-half for a couple of years. I hope he will, sometimes at least, take the ball at speed and play close to the gain-line. In the under-20s match against Italy, Adam Hastings, who in most other respects looked a very good player, was often hanging back and scarcely moving when he took his scrum-half’s pass several yards behind the gain-line. So the Italian defence was rarely challenged.
Japan have had a game together, narrowly beating Canada a week ago, and it isn’t easy to win away from home in unfamiliar surroundings. Nevertheless Cotter’s team should win today, and next week too. It’s important that they maintain the improvement shown in the Six Nations. After all, none of their rivals is evidently going backwards. Those who thought Ireland might be in decline now look a bit silly, while England continue to improve.