Heading into Saturday night’s World Cup meeting with Scotland at the Stade de France in what amounts to a glorified last-16 knock-out tie, rarely have the levels of favouritism and expectation on an Ireland team been so high.
On the one hand there’s the run of eight successive wins over Scotland, and then there was the epic 13-8 victory over South Africa, the reigning world champions. Yet Ireland’s attack coach Mike Catt maintains that this Irish team are comfortable with the high hopes around them this week.
“Yeah, very much so and I think the trip to New Zealand last year put us in those situations and winning the Grand Slam on the back of that with wins over England and Scotland, those games,” said Catt after a rare rain-affected Tuesday morning session at their base in Tours.
“We’re well aware and we understand what needs to be done and if we put in a performance defensively and in attack, then there’s a chance that things will go our way. But it’s going to be a proper Test match, and that’s why we play the game.”
That said, Catt does not believe the run of eight wins over Scotland gives his players additional confidence.
“No, I don’t think it gives them anything. It’s not about being eight, it’s the next game, pulling on an Irish shirt and looking to put in a performance that the nation is going to be proud of and we are going to be proud of too.
“And I think if we can do that then there’s a good chance that the game might go our way. History is history. It doesn’t come into it at all, from our point of view,” said Catt.
“We need to chase our potential. We need to make sure we go up another level to what we were against South Africa. The whole game’s exciting, it’s not just the backlines,” added Catt, noting that both were attack-minded teams who like to play with the ball in hand.
The rightly lauded Irish attack scored 20 tries in their opening two games against Romania and Tonga, before being restricted to one by the Springboks, and Catt maintained: “We missed a fair few opportunities over the past two or three games and for me it’s those opportunities in international rugby, especially at World Cups, you have to nail.”
Ireland needed to be more accurate, he said, in “what we’re seeing and how we get the ball to where we want it to go.
“South Africa defend completely different from how Scotland defend. Scotland want a lot of time in the tackle and they’re very strong in that sort of area so it’s making sure that we can generate the quick ball, that we can get on the front foot too to make our attack tick.
“It’s going to come down to crucial moments in the game. I know Scotland are well capable of stopping us and we’re all well aware of that so we need to make sure that we do things and do it our way and have that confidence and ability that, if we do get it right, things will fall right for us.”
While Finn Russell’s bag of tricks adds to Scotland’s unpredictability, Catt stressed that Ireland also need to contain the likes of Duhan van der Merwe, Darcy Graham and Blair Kinghorn.
“Finn might orchestrate it all, but they have some dangerous runners around him that help him out,” he said.
Ireland need to avoid a defeat by six points or more in order to progress but Catt admitted he hadn’t given much thought to the various permutations, albeit he said Andy Farrell is fully cognisant of them.
“Ultimately, both teams need to win the game. If you do that then you put yourself in a good position. That’s what we will try to achieve.”
Another scenario, raised by the South African media and given oxygen by Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber, is that Ireland and Scotland conspire to score four or more tries each and the latter win by 21 points or more, in which case the Boks would be eliminated.
“That stuff is just white noise in the background. No, we’re not going to go in cahoots with Scotland,” said a slightly incredulous Catt at the prospect.
“Firstly, I’d ask you, would we want Scotland to beat us by 21 points? If you asked any player in this room, any of us, would they want Scotland to beat you by 21 points?” said Catt.
Not even if that possibility came into view late on?