Friday 31 January 2014

Wolfpuppies show their promise

The Ireland Under 20s got off to a great start with a big victory over Scotland. Mike Ruddock's side displayed  both forward dominance at times and threatened with their backline despite the poor weather conditions. The scoreline of 34-7 did not flatter them one but. It was a good opening, but there is a lot of room for improvement, most of which will come with better weather conditions.

Ross Byrne started the game kicking well, both clearing from his 22, and finding the corner when he needed to. Ireland's scrum took over from last year's impressive set piece, and it was an advantage that started making metres whenever either side had a put in. The second half changed things at scrumtime, with substitions strengthen Scotland to the point that they had the bigger pushes.

Despite boasting one of the best kicking percentages of all time in last year's Leinster Senior Cup competition, Gary Ringrose wasn't the designated kicker, with Ross Byrne nailing one from just inside the Scottish half to give Ireland the lead they deserved. The backrow had started well, with O'Donoghue in particular carrying very strongly, and Timmins proving a nuisance at the breakdown.

Sean O'Brien was guilty of giving away a few cheap penalties, especially just after Byrne had given Ireland the lead. Scotland chose not to take the points on offer, and Ireland's lineout, which was functioning well, managed another steal.

With the lineout going well, and the scrum getting some big shoves on, it was heartening to see Ireland's backline looking threatening, especially when Byrne had runners coming from all angles and Robb running hard and start. While Byrne added another penalty after one wayward kick, with 20 minutes gone it wasn't unreasonable to say that 6-0 to Ireland flattered Scotland, and that Ireland were a guilty of being wasteful in possession. Near the half hour mark though, another big push at scrumtime lead to a turnover, and after some renewed patience going through the phases, no. 8 Jack O'Donoghue was able to squeeze over to give Ireland a lead they deserved.

Ireland's defense was the only other aspect of their play to be tested, and Scotland got some possession in Ireland's territory. Ireland put in some huge effort into their Gandalf defense, and after a number of phases were able to force the turnover and clear the ball. Ireland's halfbacks, who grew up playing together in school, where keeping the Scottish defense honest, with both not afraid to take the ball on, and bring runners into play. It was a matter of time before Ireland scored again, and on the stroke of halftime, Peadar Timmins gave Ireland some cushion. Again, Ireland had showed some good patience going through the phases and not forcing offloads. Byrne added the conversion for a half time score of 20-0.

Jack O'Donoghue, a deserved man of the match, picked up where he left off in the second half, with a strong carry, that also featured a lovely Leavy offload in the same phase. Ireland were running hard at Scotland, and the impressive David Busby did well to get his hands free for another offload to keep things moving. The weather was starting to take its toll though, with audible squelching and some slipping taking over the game.

Ireland were still in control though, and while more great patience lead to Max Abbott being denied by the TMO, Scotland's strange reluctance to clear brought more chances. In fact, this was when the scrum dominance shifted, with Scotland winning two consecutive scrums against the head. Ireland didn't let this phase them however, with a maul from the resulting clearance kick bringing play right back into the Scotland 22 having gained nearly 20m. This pressure eventually told, and a quick free kick from Jack O'Donoghue brought his second of the night, and a 27-0 lead. This was to be O'Donoghue's last act as he seemed to twist his knee awkwardly and could be doubtful for the rest of the competition.

Substitutions and the weather seemed to disrupt the flow of the game from this point, and Ireland seemed to lose momentum. Scotland were growing in confidence at their newfound scrum dominance and decided to take a 5m scrum when awarded a penalty. Yet again the Irish defense held out, and eventually a big clearance kick from the excellent Ross Byrne and a great chase from winger Ian Fitzpatrick lead to a try for replacement prop Oisin Heffernan. Credit must got to Ian Fitzpatrick for his role here, with a big hit and good chase when it would have been easier to shut off, in what wasn't a night for wingers.

It was a positive opening from the Irish 20s, although a late consolation try from Scotland blotted their copybook somewhat. Jack O'Donoghue was the pick of the players, with good showings from David Busby and Ross Byrne too. Dan Leavy and Sean O'Brien gave tiny glimpses into their immense potential but overall the team can look forward to going into next week's game against Wales with confidence.

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