New Ireland assistant coach Mike Catt got it right for once in 2020 – he claimed on Friday that the team were looking to “put on a performance for the nation” and that eventually materialised, Andy Farrell’s under-pressure charges stitching together sufficient dominance either side of the interval to be fully deserving of their 31-16 win.
It was by no means perfect. Scotland caused numerous headaches at the breakdown and they initially moved the ball swiftly, often testing the Ireland defence at the edges.
That promise was good enough to earn them a 9-3 lead 27 minutes in but they then collapsed, a Duncan Taylor yellow card the signal for the Irish pressure that produced three tries in a twelve-minute spell either side of the interval.
It was a badly needed show of force by the Irish as questions have grown throughout the autumn about the capabilities of Farrell as a new head coach. Ireland have been okay at home, flaky away, but their match-winning spell of dominance on Saturday will bring encouragement that the bedding-in period is now over and much better will be seen in year two of the Farrell tenure.
Overall, 42 different players were used in Ireland’s nine 2020 matches, 32 as starters. There were nine new caps, the best being Caelan Doris with a very honourable mention for recent recruit Hugo Keenan, and one player – the indomitable James Ryan – started all nine matches.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 5, 2020
Here is how Saturday’s XV rated in the win that enabled Farrell to sign off with six home wins and three away defeats.
15. JACOB STOCKDALE – 7
Looked far most settled in the position against the Scots than in previous outings this autumn. Looked like he was better adjusting to the defensive nuances compared to the Test level wing and he picked his lines more studiously when running, generated a metres tally that was in excess of three figures
14. HUGO KEENAN – 7
Uncapped coming into this autumn block, he finished as one of three players to start all six matches. His attitude had been excellent throughout and it continued here even though he had his hands full with Duhan van der Merwe’s ability to plough on in the contact. Kicked well and demonstrated a good appetite for involvement, even popping up on the opposite flank to help launch the pressure that led to the all-important Taylor yellow card in the opening half.
13. ROBBIE HENSHAW – 7
Ireland surely couldn’t have been as limited in midfield as last Sunday’s Chris Farrell/Stuart McCloskey combination and Henshaw was good value, particularly under the aerial ball in the first half. There was one great catch on the Scotland 22 and it was his later deflection that was the assist for the lead-taking Keith Earls try.
12. BUNDEE AKI – 6
Had struggled for form during this block, but made a decent chunk of yardage here in eventually helping Ireland put a convincing end to Scotland’s early promise. Missed an early second-half pass near the try line, but he kept things positive which was what the team needed after a confidence-draining few weeks.
11. KEITH EARLS – 8
Excellent level of contribution all afternoon long, putting his wealth of experience to repeated good use. Helped with the clearouts and was a deserving double try-scorer. His finishing instincts ensured he was ready for the ball that came loose off Henshaw and he then showed he still has plenty of pace to make it in at the corner for the second.
10. JOHNNY SEXTON – 7
Limped off on 64 minutes with a dead leg with his job done. Missed an early kick off the tee and wasn’t much to the fore in the opening half-hour, but he sprung to life when needed, helping Ireland turn pressure into points by manipulating the Scottish defence. Kicked for more than a 150-metre gain and was constantly the pushing ball on quickly outside him to help change the picture.
9. CONOR MURRAY – 7
Initially had some difficulty securing Ireland ruck ball. Had one pilfered by Jamie Ritchie and can’t have been pleased how he was a few yards away when Ali Price came around and stole ball that had squirted loose from another first-half breakdown. Stuck at it, though, and his persistence came good.
1. CIAN HEALY – 7
Was penalised for a collapsed scrum that cost three points on 20 minutes and had a high number of missed tackles but his engine was good and his physicality helped to swing momentum when it was needed during that critical period either side of the interval. Fine finish for his early second-half try. Gave way late on to enable Eric O’Sullivan to get his debut.
2. ROB HERRING – 6
Suffered an early lineout loss and while that set-piece ran more smoothly after that, his own performance was black marked by his shoddy tackle as the pillar at the ruck, his soft defence allowing van der Merwe burst clear to score. That was an example of how he hasn’t excelled in 2020 to nail down this spot as the definite successor to Rory Best. He finished the game as his team busiest tackler but that miss will haunt him.
3. ANDREW PORTER – 8
Another to start all six games in this period, even demonstrating his increasingly impressive engine with a full 80 minutes at Twickenham, he came to the boil nicely here, getting into double figures with his tackles and looking to carry, something the pack has needed as it becomes predictable when there are oo few ball carriers.
4. IAIN HENDERSON – 6
Roughed up Price with an early follow through as he endeavoured to make his presence felt. Cost three points with a rip that didn’t please the referee and having been down for treatment, he left the fray shortly before the break to be replaced by Quinn Roux, who was abrasive throughout the second half and was the bad breakdown medicine that put Scotland off their stride. Henderson will require a scan on his knee to assess the damage.
5. JAMES RYAN – 8
The third and final players to start all six, he has emerged as Ireland’s captain-in-waiting, a switch coach Farrell should really grasp and be done with before the 2021 Six Nations starts. Penalised for holding on early on but wised up to what the Scots were at and he did very well. Credited with 34 metres from ten carries and a tackle count in double figures. Left for a HIA.
6. CJ STANDER – 7
With Ireland struggling early on in the trenches, it was his vital steal of a loose ball with Ireland six points down that helped get some confidence flowing. Was helped here by the ability of Doris and Peter O’Mahony to take the lion’s of the ball carrying, but he wasn’t slack either, managing 45 metres off 14 carries. Some missed tackles to reflect on.
7. PETER O’MAHONY – 8
He captained the Lions from this spot, which made questions about his suitability to be the openside a touch odd. Was excellent in providing the grit that swung momentum towards Ireland and whereas under Joe Schmidt he would rarely carry the ball, he has increasingly added that to his armoury under Farrell. Made 64 metres off eleven carries and would have had a late try but for a foot in touch. Gave Earls an excellent assist for the winger’s second try.
8. CAELAN DORIS – 8
Had his Test debut ruined against the Scots with a fourth-minute concussion last February but he more than delivered against the same opposition ten months later in ensuring the tide was eventually turned and that the visitors’ early 9-3 wasn’t a result-defining situation. Made 65 metres off 13 carries, his leg drive in contact very visible, and while his tackle count wasn’t excessive, he excelled in the parts of the game he needed.
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