You could excuse Iain Henderson for wanting to talk about his first international try since 2017, but the big lock was more eager to focus on Ireland’s defensive fortitude in the aftermath of their 36-14 win over Scotland.
Having been stung by James Lowe’s try after barely a minute, the Scots pushed hard for a response but were met by a robust Irish defence, which most notably absorbed 18 phases before Caelan Doris forced a fumble.
Ireland had their highest tackle count of this Rugby World Cup at 195, with a tackle success rate of 80% and eight dominant tackles (four more than Scotland). They won seven turnovers, and only leaked three line breaks despite some prolonged Scottish pressure.
“Going into the game, we knew the first half was going to be vital,” commented Henderson, who played the full 80 minutes of the pulsating Pool B finale in Paris.
“We knew that’s where Scotland were either going to get all their belief from or that’s where we were going to have to try and break them.
“Fair play to the lads who put a good shift in there. The first 50 minutes was a huge defensive effort from the guys, and from there, in the second half, obviously we knew they were going to come back out firing.
“They were going to come back out and try and show what they want to play about, and they did that, but fair play to the lads for sticking till the end.”
Henderson made a handsome contribution to Ireland’s fourth pool victory, leading a lineout that had a 100% return with twelve successful takes. On the occasion of his 100th cap, Peter O’Mahony secured five of Dan Sheehan’s throws and stole two Scottish balls.
The Craigavon-born forward also weighed in with a well-taken 31st-minute try, his first for Ireland since the 2017 Six Nations. He tallied up 14 successful tackles, and it was the collective defensive effort that provided the platform for success.
We knew we were going to see the best version of Scotland. We knew that they were going to come out in that first half and try and throw everything at us.
“That big defensive set at the start was a real foundation for us to build on and grow into the game from after that first try.
“Fair play to the lads, I thought the effort in that, and for a few of the backs to finish off those tries, was brilliant.”
While Scotland did manage to cross the whitewash twice in the end, Ireland had limited them to just three entries into the red zone during the first half, all before the 12-minute mark. Their next entry was not until the 45th minute, at which stage it was 31-0 on the scoreboard.
Ireland had far more rucks within 10 metres of the previous ruck than Scotland, 50% of all their rucks were ‘close’ to the breakdown. With that, they earned the right to go wide when it was on and they were ultra efficient in putting away their chances.
“We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to deliver the game that we know that we can play,” Henderson told Virgin Media Sport.
“We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to try and be the best version of ourselves, to play the game that we want to play and be able to break good teams like Scotland down.
“Scotland have an unbelievable defence and throughout parts of the game, we did feel that they had us under a fair bit of pressure. But we know when we play our game, it was good enough to beat them, and that’s probably the story of the night.”
Ireland’s reward for their Pool B clean sweep is a mouth-watering quarter-final clash with New Zealand next Saturday. The Stade de France will be packed out again as the teams meet for the first time since 2022’s enthralling summer series in Aotearoa.
Mack Hansen (calf), Lowe (eye) and James Ryan (wrist) emerged as injury concerns following the Scotland game, with Ireland’s medical team already keeping a close eye on Robbie Henshaw and Keith Earls’ hamstring issues.
Defence coach Simon Easterby said it will be ‘the next 24 to 48 hours when we will be able to get a better read on those guys’. “Everyone is in good form today but there will be a bit of work going on to assess those guys who had bumps,” he explained.
Henderson believes Andy Farrell’s men can end Ireland’s frustrating run of World Cup quarter-final defeats, adding: “We’ve talked about this before. We’ve talked about the quarter-final, where it’s been a sort of banana skin for us before.
“But the way we phrase it is, this is a different Ireland team. It’s a different Ireland team to the ones that have faced quarter-finals before, and to every man, I believe that the squad and management believe that.
“This team has done things that other teams haven’t done, and has an atmosphere that other teams haven’t had.
“When things are tough and times are hard, we’re going to fall back on that. I’m excited to see what this team can put out in the next few weeks.”