At some point later in the year, the people of Limerick will elect a new mayor. Paul O’Connell has better things to be doing, but if the proud son of Young Munster put his name on the ballot then he’d do the same kind of demolition job on his rivals as his lineout forwards did on the head-wrecked Scots on Sunday.
He’d have the chain of office around his neck in the time it takes to say ‘two from nine’, Scotland’s out-of-touch stats at Murrayfield.
We can analyse the stratospheric crisis that befell the Scots, we can examine in microscopic detail the throwing of George Turner, the lifting of Rory Sutherland and WP Nel, the footwork and timing and movement of the jumpers and the defensive work of the Irish in reply, but there’s one thing we can’t analyse because we couldn’t see it.
It was the psychology of the set-piece and the work O’Connell, their guru of their lineout, did in helping his pack get into the minds of their opposite numbers. In the mind’s eye, you can see him burning the midnight oil, finding weaknesses to exploit.
Ireland picked off balls in the air for sure, but every time Turner was standing on that touchline, he looked haunted as James Ryan and Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne looked back at him. Mentally, Ireland inflicted a terrible beating on Scotland in that area and it was O’Connell who would have orchestrated it.
Without lineout ball, rugby is almost impossible. It’s hard to remember a greater deconstruction in the Six Nations. Maybe one exists back in time, but this was mortifying.
The fact that Scotland managed to get level at 24-24 with six minutes left to play was a little miracle. They had Stuart Hogg playing fly-half at that point and Scott Steele, the replacement scrum-half, at flanker because Gregor Townsend had run out of forwards.
With a 14-point lead, Ireland had stopped playing. They invited the Scots on to them and the Scots took advantage. The momentum was heading one way only.
It looked like being one of those games that defied logic. Scotland looked like a trivia question in waiting – which team won a Six Nations match despite losing 78% of their own lineout ball.
Only this was a game that they never had any semblance of control of. They were like a rodeo cowboy on a bucking bronco – hanging on in hope.
Those feelings of optimism towards the end – if they ever existed at all – were snuffed out pretty quickly. Ireland had one last shot at victory and it fell to Johnny Sexton. There’s nobody else on earth they would have wanted it to fall to.
Sexton roars in Russell battle
Sexton versus Finn Russell was one of the sub plots to the day. Just before the hour, Russell had a chance to apply pressure on Ireland with a penalty to touch. He kicked it dead.
That act was pretty typical of his performance. Warren Gatland, the Lions coach, was at Murrayfield and all the doubts he has about Russell’s ability to manage tough games were confirmed.
Where Russell missed touch, Sexton landed the pressure kick. He stepped up with time running out and with his team in something of a meltdown and smacked over the winning penalty.
That’s leadership, that’s nerve, that’s something that, you fancy, puts Sexton a mile and half ahead of Russell when it comes to Gatland’s Test 10 against the Springboks. Russell’s place in the squad, not to mind the Test team, is no certainty.
Ireland deserved their win, their 18th in 22 matches against Scotland in the Six Nations. They started with an intensity and had scored inside eight minutes. A lineout steal was the thing that gave the visitors their momentum.
Only a sensational turnover by Hamish Watson near his own posts stopped Ireland scoring again. That would have brought it to 15-3 after less than a quarter of the match. Scotland were being resoundingly thumped.
They had another lineout ball stolen in the 19th minute, another went in the 24th, another in the 31st. That one was the catalyst for a Sexton penalty, which he boomed over.
Eight points gifted to Ireland because of a malfunctioning lineout on the back of all those points Wales helped themselves to a month ago on the back of terrible Scottish discipline. One step forward, two steps back.
The fact that Scotland only trailed 14-10 at the break was fortuitous. They’d no lineout, no ball, no game. They had 39% possession and 34% territory. They’d been turned over 11 times already.
When Beirne scored and Sexton made it 21-10 with a try and a conversion, it looked like a hammering was on the cards. A sixth home lineout went south soon after. Sexton’s boot stretched the lead to 14 points.
A kick expected through bitter experience arrived
The hopes of Scotland’s Lions were being torched minute by minute and with it came the grim thought that the win over England was not a bright new dawn but a one-off victory over a team that was lamentably undercooked and incapable of putting Scotland under the kind of pressure that too often sees them fold.
Then, of course, the comeback. How typically Scottish. How outrageously predictable.
Huw Jones finished brilliantly, the beleaguered Russell departed with a head knock and Hogg moved up to 10. Steele, roughly the size of the leg of a chair, became a flanker and Dave Cherry finally replaced Turner. Watson, a colossus who deserves better than the yo-yo existence of this team and certainly warrants the status of a Lion, scored, Hogg converted and suddenly it was 24-24.
Years of bitter experience told you that there was a kick to the gut coming and years of bitter experience told you that it was Sexton who was going to provide it. He saved his team from themselves, saved them from that awful spell when they lost their way, fell off tackles and put the victory in jeopardy.
That swing of Sexton’s boot restored order and justice. Ireland were the better team. This wasn’t in the same parish as Saturday’s classic at Twickenham between England and France, but there was a fascination to it all the same.
Ireland got their reward. As ever, when the Irish are in desperate need of a victory, the Scots obliged.
Townsend has Italy next and France sometime after that. They’ll win the former and will lose the latter. They’ll finish on two wins, a team that flattered to deceive at Twickenham.
There’s huge talent in the Scottish ranks, there are players of obvious class, but when it comes to the bearpit battles of Six Nations rugby, this team has a long way to go before they can be considered contenders. You have to wonder if they’ll ever get there.