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Triple Treat In Third Gear

Triple Treat In Third Gear

There was more than a hint of Arsenal versus Bolton about the Ireland v Scotland match at Murrayfield.

Only one side was trying to play the beautiful game, but try as they might, they couldn’t bring the gulf in footballing class to bear on the scoreline. Much as Arsenal tend to pass their way through Bolton, creating a series of half-chances but nothing so clear-cut as a goal, Ireland were doing all sorts of nice things in midfield but not really cutting it when the tryline hoved into view.

And as the third quarter came to an end, it appeared that this Ireland side was about to go the way that Arsenal have done on a number of occasions recently when confronted with the unyielding physicality of Bolton.

Had Ireland converted their first quarter dominance into a try, the game could well have played out as expected. Indeed it’s not much of an overstatement to suggest that if Girvan Dempsey had held onto ‘that’ pass and fed Denis Hickie, the likelihood is that Ireland would have cruised home.

Ultimately, while Ireland‘s performance was highly laudable in terms of ambition, it was let down by poor execution. When one considers the error rate from the England game with Saturday’s – there is no comparison.

While it is fabulous to have a team that wins so often with élan and plays an attractive, high-octane game, there are times when one would happily take a dose of common sense.

Many of them were just a bit unfortunate (Gordon D’Arcy’s accidental offside, for instance), but there was also a worrying inclination to force the ball. Shane Horgan had his worst game in an awfully long time and was a major culprit in this regard, as was Brian O’Driscoll, despite his excellence in other areas.

When things haven’t been coming off and you’re in a dogfight, the thing to do is not to go for the high-risk offload. Examples abounded. Horgan on a couple of occasions in the first half; O’Driscoll late in the game with Ireland having eked out a one point advantage and vulnerable to a loss of possession that could have cost the game attempted one such high risk manoeuvre. The sensible thing to do at that point in the game was to go to ground, retain possession and kick long to force Scotland to work from deep.

If Dempsey’s knock-on in the first half was a key moment, it’s second half equivalent was when Ireland failed to score from the kick to the corner when Nathan Hines was sinbinned. Once again, this was the moment they could have liberated themselves but failed to.

When Ireland went 18-13 down with 15 minutes to go, it was a litmus test of this side. Defeat was unthinkable, but looking more and more likely. One found oneself caught between the knowledge that the team had the ability and the tools to still win the game on the one hand, and the knowledge that momentum has a way of obliterating these things.

Oscar Wilde would have loved it  – ‘The suspense is killing me. I hope it lasts.’ It was a delicious moment, if you like that kind of thing.

I’m happy enough to count myself as one that thought they would do it, and indeed they rewarded the thought. It is difficult to overstate the mental baggage that Ireland would have been carrying with them to the World Cup had they not found a way to eke out a win in this one. Great credit is due to the team that won a game that could so easily have been lost.

I expect there will be some healthy debate at the video session as to whether it was correct or not to play from so deep as Ireland did. The upshot of that debate, I believe, will result in a continued willingness to attack from deep but to reduce the incidence of speculative attempts and forcing of the pass in those positions. One can attack from deep but not take such risks, if you know what I mean.

Having manfully turned the tide of momentum with 15 minutes to go, Ireland have got their reward in the shape of a stunning England victory over France that gives us  a chance at a first 6 Nations championship. Reports of France being 1-7 appear to be overstated as Paddy Power makes them 2-5, with Ireland at 7-4 and England 50-1.

However, it is difficult to see Scotland going to Paris and troubling France to the degree necessary. Ultimately, the staggered kick-off times might just do for us.

Given the consistency of our performance through the noughties, this is definitely no more than we deserve. Ireland has finished second in four of the last seven years (twice on points difference) and in that time is the only country to finish inside the top 3 in every year.

Sport is a cruel mistress, however, and, while optimism is a character trait ingrained in the Irish rugby supporter, somehow one feels that this particular mistress may be wearing the bridesmaid’s dress once more.