A nation turns its eyes to Jackson . . . let's hope it's not too much for him on his debut
ANALYSIS:I suspect there will be a moment tomorrow when a wily old Cork man with a trusty boot will save the day
France are at the bottom of the table. Sam Warburton is on the Welsh bench. Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall are starting for Ireland. Scotland are favourites in Edinburgh.
No bookie would have offered odds on those after two rounds of the Championship. Suddenly, the Scots have energy and hope.
A statistical analysis of the Scottish performances shows a major change in playing style as the catalyst. In losing to England the Scots managed only 38 per cent possession. You would expect a more dominant possession statistic in beating Italy. Wrong. Slap bang on 38 per cent again.
In defence against Italy, Scotland completed 146 tackles and asked Italy to make only 61.
The combination of the two stats means Scotland are comfortable without the ball. They trust their fast moving, aggressive “D” system. They are brutal at the breakdown, this forces turnovers or frustrates teams into kicking, both of which are counter attacked. Sean Lamont’s try against Italy was a direct result of counter-rucking and “smart” illegal play that led to a turnover, then counterattack.
The Scottish focus at the breakdown is reflected in them conceding 13 penalties in both matches. That is a lot. The Scots contesting at the ruck is slowing the opposition ball so their fast defensive line catches the attack behind the gain line. This will place huge pressure on Paddy Jackson.
While this game plan is refreshingly new for Murrayfield, it is not a new to rugby. Under Robbie Deans, the Canterbury Crusaders made an art form of using a defensive wall to win turnovers at the tackle, or force poor kicks to a brilliant counter-attacking back three. Scott Johnson does not have the talent available that Deans did, but it still a tough plan to deconstruct.
Scotland have also drastically reduced the number of passes used in their attacking system. In past seasons I have been very critical of the Scots’ lateral attack, with lots of passes and little go forward.
In three games last season the Scots made a staggering 677 passes and scored only 33 points.
With only 86 passes against England and 91 against Italy the Scots will have to make 500 passes this week to keep up last year’s average.
From this we can conclude the Scots are playing direct rugby. There is more go forward and less lateral ball movement, and that is a good thing for Scotland.
The Scots have two major weaknesses. It has been many years since the mental burden of being favourites in a major Six Nations game was carried on to Murrayfield. Secondly, while they have improved, they aren’t as good as everyone says.
If you picked a combined Scotland and Ireland team the majority of the 15 are still Irish.
Ireland are the mirror image. They are not in as much trouble as everybody is saying, yet there is a sense of panic about the team.
The selection of Paddy Jackson is a direct reflection of the pressure mounting on Declan and his staff. I am a supporter of Paddy. His talent is undeniable. Whether that talent is mature enough to perform under the white-hot glare of the Six Nations is the gamble.
If he is not a gamble selection why has he not been in the 22? In last year’s Heineken Cup final, Jackson was a shock selection for Ian Humphreys. The occasion was too much. He will be an excellent player for Ulster for many years to come, but his selection for the Heineken Cup final was wrong.
Not yet ready
I feel he is not yet ready to display the game management necessary for Ireland to win against a rushing defence. I truly hope I am wrong.
While Ronan O’Gara is not in great form he is a champion.
Knowing Rog, he will be storing away all the insults and using it to fuel a performance.
Rog is like the American country and western singer, Toby Keith says, “I am not as good as I once was, but I am as good once, as I ever was.” O’Gara still has what it takes. I will not be surprised if, in the shadows of full time the great man once again steps up and rescues his beloved Ireland through a piece of individual brilliance.
A lot is riding on young Paddy Jackson’s shoulders. Declan’s future, a new captain’s dreams, his team’s Championship and a nation’s hopes; that’s too much for a young man on his first cap.
In some ways it is not fair on Jackson to be tossed in the deep end for a second time. I hope he plays magnificently, but it is hope.
I suspect there will be a moment in the match where a calm old head, with a sure right boot, and a burning desire to prove himself once again to the nation, will prove all the doubters wrong. If Rog gets more than 30 minutes, Ireland will win, by the skin of a Corkman’s kicking boot.