By Kieran Rooney
SIX tries in the last two games, just one conceded. Yet, Ireland lost to France and very nearly let last Saturday's third Six Nations match against Scotland at Murrayfield slip before edging home 21-18.
It's turning out to be very strange season, one which has seen Ireland mix some decent rugby with frustrating errors. And by far the most frustrating aspect is their capacity to concede needless penalties.
Against France, it cost them the match. Scotland aren't up to the class of the French but they do have one thing in common in that they have top class goal-kickers.
So, when you have a 13-4 penalty count against you as Ireland did at Murrayfield, you are in trouble. Between them, Chris Paterson and Dan Parks contributed all of Scotland's 19 points with the boot.
By contrast, Ireland scored three tries through Jamie Heaslip, Eoin Reddan and man-of-the-match Ronan O'Gara. The return of O'Gara at out-half was one of the real successes for Ireland, the Munster man rarely putting a foot wrong.
In opting for him ahead of Jonathan Sexton, coach Declan Kidney has opted for a more pragmatic approach. Sexton, to give him his due, has been brilliant as an attacking out-half for Leinster, but the Irish management clearly feel there are too many risks involved in the high tempo running game.
Consequently, they made the decision to bring back O'Gara and play to Ireland's more traditional strengths. He is a master at kicking for positions and has a temperament second to none.
He also, importantly, has a wealth of experience. He used that to great effect at Murrayfield, putting Ireland in good positions when given the opportunity in the first half.
Typical was the occasion when he kicked over Paterson's head to set up the position from which Ireland scored the first try. Fortunately, it has to be said, Scotland's defense was appalling, as Jamie Heaslip strolled over unopposed.
Much the same story for the second try. O'Gara kicks into the corner, Scotland make a complete mess of the line-out, and Reddan strolls in beside the posts.
The result is, with O'Gara landing the two conversions, Ireland are 14-6 ahead. When O'Gara then avails of more weak Scottish tackling to go in for a try himself 13 minutes into the second half, the game should have been over.
His conversion makes it 21-9. The stage is set for Ireland to go on to a comfortable success, but it doesn't happen.
Ireland lost their way, mainly because of the continued capacity to concede penalties. Paterson and Parks land one each to reduce the deficit to 21-16 before Kidney somewhat controversially takes off O'Gara and introduces Sexton.
It's a big call in the circumstances. In the event, Sexton does okay. He might have kicked instead of passing on a few occasions inside his own half but he defends very well and makes one great clearance.
In the end, Ireland survive after Parks had reduced the deficit to 21-18 with a drop goal 10 minutes form the end. Quite a bit of credit must go to Paul O'Connell who made a number of important steals and to substitute back-row player Denis Leamy for a great turn over in the dying minutes.
Anyway, the victory means that Ireland are still very much in the championship with four points from three games, the same mark as Wales and France. England top the table with a maximum six points.
The question now is can Ireland improve sufficiently and beat Wales away and England at home in the last two games? You would have to admit that they have a lot of work to do, particularly if they continue to give away penalties.
Worryingly, the game against Scotland was not of a great overall standard. In passages, Ireland produce some good rugby but otherwise there are far too many errors.
On the plus side, Paul O'Connell is getting better, this was easily his most impressive performance since his comeback, and Tommy Bowe will be much better for the game. Furthermore, Ireland have discovered a huge talent in Sean O'Brien.
The flanker's barnstorming second half runs were among the highlights of the game. He has pace and enormous strength as a ball carrier.
In my view, if you were to ask the All Blacks what Irish player they would currently be interested in, given the opportunity, they would immediately go for O'Brien. He is potentially that good.
That, of course, will count for very little if Ireland continue to give away so many penalties. Skipper Brian O'Driscoll is at a bit of a loss as to what's happening but the one thing he does know is that players will have to take a good look at themselves.
"Yes, guys will need to have a good look. There are a certain amount of penalties, 50-50 calls, but there are others where our guys are infringing.
"You are letting the team down if you are doing that. To outscore you rivals three tries to nil and then find yourself hanging on at the end made for a very strange dressingroom."
At least Ireland are fully aware of the situation. Then again, they were fully aware of the situation after the French match but it repeated itself at Murrayfield.
No doubt, Ireland's season will take shape for better or worse at the Millennium Stadium against Wales on Saturday week. In the meantime, the Scotland match will be remembered as the game the Irish team nearly blew after outscoring their rivals by three tries to nil and the return to the starting line-up of Ronan O'Gara.
At 33, the Munster man proved that he is still more than up for the challenge. He admitted that Jonathan Sexton's rise has forced him to dig deeper.
"Sure, I really enjoyed it. I've had my ups and downs throught my career but I wouldn't change a thing. You can always learn no matter what stage you are at."
Predictably, he would not be pushed as to whether he should be a more regular first choice at out-half for Ireland. Instead, he paid tribute to Sexton, calling him "a class player", and pointed out that the decision is up to the coach.
So, his performance off the pitch was very bit as astute as it was on it.
Under-strength Munster notch up another win
MUNSTER remain on course to top the Magners League table following a 20-10 away success over Italian outfit Aironi.
Although Munster were badly understrength, the win was very much expected agains the bottom of the table outfit. Donncha Ryan scored the game's crucial try.
The win leave Munster nine points clear of the Osprey who accounted for Connacht 33-18 at home. After a recent good run, Connacht just could not quite match the extra strength of ther current Magners League champions.
Leinster are in third spot after their young understrength side beat Benetton Treviso 30-5 at the RDS. Ian McKinley proved a real success at out-half, scoring one of Leinster three tries and making another.
But the game should really have seen Leinster secure a bonus point. No such problem for Ulster who crossed for four tries in an excellent 32-13 victory over Cardiff Blues at Ravenhill. That leaves them in sixth spot, just two points away from the top four.
In the Six Nation Under 20 Championship, the Irish team made it two wins from three by beating Scotland 15-0 in Inverness. Given the fact that they were again below strength, it was a very decent performance.