Ireland have the weaponry to put Scotland to sword
Brian O'Driscoll training at Carton House yesterday before Ireland's departure to Scotland for tomorrow's game. photograph: morgan treacy/inpho
SIX NATIONS CHAMPIONSHIP:Allez les bleus, et les verts. On the pivotal weekend of the Six Nations, France can do themselves and the tournament a favour at Twickenham today by beating England, which would then most likely see three-way ties on both four points and two points after three rounds. Cue 2pm tomorrow in Murrayfield then, and Scotland and Ireland could face off with the title back in the mix.
But even if France don’t awake from their slumber, the pressure to cling onto England’s shirt-tails will be immense. Effectively then, this is another title eliminator. And it’s amazing how one win, or defeat, can dramatically shift the ebb and flow of psychic energy – think back to Ireland’s 44-22 win over Scotland in 2000. With one bound they were free.
At the outset of the tournament, Ireland might have been looked upon as strong favourites for a sixth successive Championship win in Edinburgh. All changed, changed utterly in round two, with Scotland rediscovering their Sahara Desert that was the opposition’s try line in a handsome if decidedly flattering win over Italy.
But that won’t bother them, for it demonstrated a new counter-attacking game with a line of five or six players running back quick throws or loose kicks, and an ability to feed voraciously off scraps under a new, oddly complimentary regime of Scott Johnson and Dean Ryan. With these two technically excellent coaches, there’s a new-found spring in their step and cutting edge in the strong finishing Tim Visser and Seán Maitland on the wings, and Stuart Hogg, a blur of speed from full-back.
They’ll he sniffing blood come kick-off against wounded foes, for such has been the fall-out of Ireland’s physical pummelling by England, losing one-third of that starting line-up as well as Chris Henry, it almost felt like two defeats in one.
With Ireland down seven first-choice players, all things being equal, a tricky game to call became even trickier when Declan Kidney rolled the dice in midweek and plumped for an Ulster schools reunion. Yet, maybe we shouldn’t be too fearful.
In the heel of the hunt, you suspect the frontrows are reasonably well balanced, Scotland have the edge in the secondrow and in the back three. Their lineout has been slick for years, and Ross Ford could probably locate Richie Gray and Jim Hamilton in a darkened alleyway.
However, allowing for concerns about Paddy Jackson’s well-being, Ireland look stronger at halfback and especially scrumhalf, where Greig Laidlaw has not been convincing as a reconverted scrumhalf inside Ruaidhri Jackson, and even allowing for Matt Scott’s emergence as against Luke Marshall’s lack of experience at this level, in midfield as well.
Which leaves the backrows and, by extension, the key breakdown area. If Peter O’Mahony reproduces his performance against England, ditto Seán O’Brien without injury for the full 80 and Jamie Heaslip is in the mood to atone for English mishaps, then Ireland will win.
Anthony Foley yesterday acknowledged that Ireland need to be more accurate at the breakdown, in engineering more turnovers and speeding up their recycling, and not least in protecting the ball, be it the carrier or those first onto the scene. Then, in tandem with a potent maul (provided Rory Best and Donnacha Ryan keep Richie Gray out of harm’s way) Ireland still have the weaponry to win.
Italy achieved a high return of yardage from the handful of times they probed around soft Scottish fringes, and an occasionally dog-legged defence could be exploited by the Ulster tyros. In any event, if Conor Murray especially and his forward runners are on their game they could wreak carnage on that evidence. Coupled with some good kicking by Murray, who really is a key man today, and Rob Kearney (who needs a big game too), that would also help Paddy Jackson no end.
Like his amigo Marshall, Jackson has just returned from injury, and in Jackson’s case his ankle strain meant he hasn’t place-kicked for four weeks (nor even taken the penalties to touch). No less than Ronan O’Gara in his early days or any other young kicker, Jackson can miss a few, and gifted though he is, this makes his selection an even bigger gamble.
Perhaps as a result, he looked to be playing a little deeper for Ulster last week but he is much more of a passing than kicking outhalf, and his selection, in tandem with the playmaking Marshall, indicates Ireland will be mostly keeping the ball in hand. Helpfully, perhaps, the forecast is good.
Besides which, there’s possibly more merit in having the experienced O’Gara in reserve than the other way round.
Another caveat is the presence of Wayne Barnes, whose history with Ireland and indeed Jamie Heaslip is not auspicious. Of their four Tests with Barnes as referee, Ireland have won only once.
Yep, that’s another caveat alright. But for all Scotland’s new-found optimism, Murrayfield on a Sunday at 2pm is not the most intimidating place on the planet and if Ireland can keep home team and crowd alike quiet by being direct, accurate, patient and clinical, they’ve the winning of this one.
Championship head-to-head: Played 118, Scotland 58 wins, 5 draws, Ireland 55 wins.
Forecast: Ireland to win.
Scotland v Ireland How they line out
(Glasgow) Stuart Hogg
(Glasgow) Sean Maitland
(Glasgow) Sean Lamont
(Edinburgh) Matt Scott
(Edinburgh) Tim Visser
(Glasgow) Ruaidhri Jackson
(Edinburgh) Greg Laidlaw
(Glasgow) Ryan Grant
(Edinburgh) Ross Ford
(Edinburgh) Geoff Cross
(Sale) Richie Gray
(Gloucester) Jim Hamilton
(Glasgow) Rob Harley
(Saracens, capt) Kelly Brown
(Montpellier) John Beattie
Replacements: D Hall (Glasgow), G Welsh (Glasgow), M Low (Glasgow), A Kellock (Glasgow), D Denton (Edinburgh), H Pyrgos (Glasgow), D Weir (Glasgow), M Evans (Castres).
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Rob Kearney (Leinster)
Craig Gilroy (Ulster)
Brian O’Driscoll (Leinster)
Luke Marshall (Ulster)
Keith Earls (Munster)
Paddy Jackson (Ulster)
Conor Murray (Munster)
Tom Court (Ulster)
Rory Best (Ulster)
Mike Ross (Leinster)
Donncha O’Callaghan (Munster)
Donnacha Ryan (Munster)
Peter O’Mahony (Munster)
Seán O’Brien (Leinster)
Jamie Heaslip (Leinster, capt)
Replacements: S Cronin (Leinster), D Kilcoyne (Munster), D Fitzpatrick (Ulster), D Toner (Leinster), I Henderson (Ulster), E Reddan (Leinster), R O’Gara (Munster), L Fitzgerald (Leinster).
Murrayfield, tomorrow, 2pm (RTÉ 2, BBC 1)