Ireland expect to have their wrecking-ball of an openside flanker Sean O'Brien available to face England at Twickenham this weekend but what they do not anticipate is a reprise of the faulty defence Scotland deployed in Dublin on Saturday. "I doubt that England will let in a couple of soft scores as Scotland possibly did," said Stephen Ferris, Ireland's blindside, using the word "possibly" as the height of sporting diplomacy.
Scotland have now lost their four Six Nations matches this season, and 11 of the 14 (with one draw) they have played under Andy Robinson since he became head coach in summer 2009. If the hiring and firing of these people is your thing, the rumours around Robinson are intriguing, with Bath thought to be hankering after his return to the club he played for and coached, in the city where he and his family still live. If the wider good health of the Scotland team is the priority, we enter the territory where good judges must decide how deep the problems lie.
A team based almost entirely on Glasgow and Edinburgh – which is all Scotland have at a fully professional level, since they closed the Borders in 2007 and chose not to fund a franchise in London – displayed familiar qualities of individual flair in the galloping lock Richie Gray and No 8 Dave Denton.
On the downside, the previously faultless line-out lost a couple of throws, and the scrum buckled occasionally against a proficient Irish eight. But what really hurt were the dozens of passes merely shipping the ball on and the inability to close the first half down with a minute remaining when Gray had just scored a lavish try. Andrew Trimble responded for Ireland to lead 22-14.
And then there was that defence. Eoin Reddan was somehow able to fumble a ball at a ruck 10 metres from the Scotland goalline in the 33rd minute and still pick it up, turn and scramble – twice losing his footing – to score unimpeded. Trimble, who is not as big as, say Wales's giant wings, brushed off a knot of four Scots for his score.
Rory Best, revelling in the captaincy in the absence of the injured Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell – past Lions skippers both – called and finished a clever give-and-take line-out move. That was the first of Ireland's three first-half tries; they had a fourth near the final whistle, through the replacement centre, Fergus McFadden.
Robinson puffed his cheeks out long and hard as he left the press conference room, looking anything but a man enjoying his job. The Scots had their wing Lee Jones taken to hospital as a precaution after a clash of heads in a clatteringly clumsy tackle by Trimble that is typical in the modern game. But there was more than that. Scotland, ranked 11th in the world, are losing a grip on their place at rugby's top table.
They are bringing some players home – though the talismanic Gray is leaving for Sale this summer – but in the absence of any other obvious plan, they can only hope youth development does the rest. "I guess it's clear where we are as a side," said Robinson.
Ireland were delighted to come through despite the missing leaders. Ferris has had his injuries since touring with the 2009 Lions but in that stunningly direct way of the Ulsterman's he looked in as fine fettle as the Cheltenham Festival horses the Irish public will be investing their hard-earned in this week. "I'm feeling really well," Ferris said. And how about a "cup final", as the head coach Declan Kidney described it, on St Patrick's Day at Twickenham to round off the Championship? "It's going to be a tough day at the office but we've won there before," said Ferris, referring to three victories in the last four visits. "Our set-piece went well [against Scotland] and it'll be a good tussle up front."
There remains the gnawing disappointment of losing in the last minute at home to Wales, and drawing in France. With a stiff upper lip, Kidney conceded only a need to "place on the record" that the International Rugby Board referee manager, Paddy O'Brien, had informed him a review of the France match showed errors in penalties either not awarded to the Irish or given to the French. Overall Ireland are chasing a top-three finish in the Six Nations for the 12th year in 13. It is a marvellous record the Scots – fifth for the past four years, bottom the one before that, and in the top three only once since 2001 – would give their right arm for.
Talking of which, O'Driscoll told the Aviva Stadium crowd he hoped to play a club match in early April around the time his Leinster province have their Heineken Cup quarter-final with Cardiff Blues at the ground. Fingers crossed, if that is the phrase, the great centre's return after a shoulder operation may be in time for a possible final, or even the semi-finals. "It can't come quickly enough," he said.
Ireland Points Scotland
4 Tries 1
3/4 Conversions 0/1
2/2 Penalties 3/3
0/0 Drop goals 0/0
Phases of play
7/0 Scrums won/lost 6/1
5/2 Line-outs won/lost 11/2
14 Pens conceded 11
5 Mauls won 3
20 Ruck and drive 5
41 Ruck and pass 60
118 Passes completed 149
6 Line breaks 1
20 Possession kicked 16
4 Kicks to touch 1
90/13 Tackles made/missed 76/10
0 Offloads in tackle 7
6 Total errors made 10
66 In open play 68
25 In opponents' 22 10
23 At set-pieces 31
2 Turnovers won 2
Official match data delivered by:
Scorers: Ireland: tries: Best, Reddan, Trimble, McFadden; cons: Sexton 3; Pens: Sexton 2.
Scotland: try: Gray; pens: Laidlaw 3.
Replacements: Ireland S Cronin for Best, 53; T Court for Healy, 51-58; Court for Ross, 77; M McCarthy for O'Callaghan, 77; S Jennings for O'Mahony, 61; T O'Leary for Reddan, 53; R O'Garafor D'Arcy, 53; F McFadden (Leinster) for Kearney, 73.
Replacements: Scotland E Murray for Cross, 46; A Kellock for Hamilton, 58; R Vernon for Rennie, 58; C Cusiter for Blair, 49; R Jackson for Laidlaw, 55; M Scott for Jones, 61.
Referee: C Pollock (New Zealand).Reuse content