Two new regimes got up and running this weekend. The Schmidt regime and the ROG-as-pundit regime.
The rollercoaster of November was something of a bedding in period for Joe; this felt like the first performance with his imprint on it. All in all, it was a low tension affair, a satisfactory ‘job done’. Once Ireland got the first try at the end of the first half it never looked like they’d lose the game. They pulled away comfortably. Sure, Scotland were rubbish, but the trick is not getting dragged down to their level. Previous Ireland teams have let Scotland make them look even more rubbish.
Positives were plenty, but chief among them has to be the backrow. Ireland fans have gotten used to lopsided backrows where someone has to forego their natural game. If one or two of the ‘loosies’ play well, one of them has a quiet game by comparison. Here all three played terrifically. The carve-up in roles looked a bit different with O’Brien out. Heaslip did most of the carrying, leaving O’Mahony to busy himself in the ruck. The Munster flanker has been accused of a lack of appetite for the dirty stuff in the past, but that couldn’t be levelled at him on Sunday, when he came up from the ground with turnover after turnover.
Heaslip won man of the match and showed exactly why he’s so valued by coaches. Eleven carries for 66 metres tells its own story; every time he got the ball Ireland were at least a couple of metres further up the pitch when he was presenting it. So far so Robin Copeland, but what makes Heaslip exceptional is that he is such an all-rounder. While most flankers have one specialised talent, Heaslip is good at everything. As well as leading the carrying, he also had the highest number of tackles in the pack, scored a try, almost scored another off the wing, played scrum half when Murray was getting sucked into rucks (as you read this Schmidt will be talking about protecting the ball better next week), caught a lineout and made his usual share of clear-outs.
Then there’s Chris Henry who is an absolute nuisance to play against. He gave away his customary penalty early on, but remained well disciplined thereafter. He doesn’t look like a #genuineopenside, but he has proven once given the chance that he is up to this level. With Tuohy and Henderson belatedly promoted to the team and bench respectively, this felt like the day Ulster were finally recognised for three years of belligerent match-winning.
Watching the aftermath of the game on telly, we couldn’t help but notice the contrast between the enlightening discussion between Shane Horgan and Ronan O’Gara pitchside and the old lags (O’Shea excepted) in the studio. O’Gara took to punditry as we expected he would; easily. As always, it was all too tempting to try and read between the lines of what he was saying. He’d heard from the Munster lads that Schmidt had driven standards sky-high. Was that a dig at the man who ended his Ireland career in such ignominious circumstances? He was also less than complimentary about his new club, describing Racing’s play as ‘more organised than usual’ in the recent win over Toulouse. He was fascinating in his analysis of French rugby culture. He has test rugby in his DNA and, like Shaggy, has plenty to say about it. What a pity there wasn’t more of them and less of the studio on Sunday. Watching McGurk and Hook exchange their usual cantankerous bleatings, a familiar thought came into our heads: ‘Get RADGE on!’.