By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — All may not yet be perfect in the Ireland camp, but at least the national rugby team’s challenge for the Six Nations title is back on track following Saturday’s convincing 43-22 victory over Scotland at Lansdowne Road.
With England losing 20-15 to France in Paris, the championship won’t now be decided until the Irish take on favorites France in Paris on April 6, and when England meet Italy a day later.
While the prospect of victories over Italy in Dublin and then the French to give Ireland a first title in 17 years is probably hoping for too much, the success against the Scots was a step in the right direction after the crushing 45-11 loss to England on Feb. 16 at Twickenham.
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Albeit against much less heavy artillery, the Irish defense was vastly improved from Twickenham, and, typically, Brian O’Driscoll took advantage of the greater amount of space available to score three impressive tries. The center’s first two performances this year had hardly generated rave reviews. However, he was back to his best with some scintillating attacking play.
He scored the game’s first try, created the second for wing Shane Horgan with a brilliant pass, which coach Eddie O’Sullivan described as the man of the match’s “best moment,” added another himself just before the interval, and then finished the job near the end with a searing break through the Scottish defense.
This second hat trick of his international career, coming two years after a memorable replica in Paris, was the high point for the Irish, who, despite superiority in most areas of the pitch, still struggled to win clean line-out possession.
Hooker Frankie Sheahan’s indifferent line-out throwing meant that he was replaced by Shane Byrne near halftime. But Byrne’s accuracy was not up to the mark either, and the Irish suffered as Scotland stole several important throws.
“We certainly had some rough passages,” O’Sullivan admitted. “The line-out creaked at times and I wasn’t that happy overall.”
An additional problem for O’Sullivan is a lack of genuine targets, with Malcolm O’Kelly the only world-class jumper in the side. There is now a real possibility that if Keith Wood is fit enough to return for the Italy game, then stand-in captain Mick Galwey will be dropped and replaced by Paul O’Connell, who made an impressive debut against Wales.
Ireland’s fifth try was scored by substitute Simon Easterby, while David Humphreys’ haul of 16 points from four penalties and two conversions meant that he broke Michael Kiernan’s Irish points scoring record of 308.