Context is an important factor in sport when trying to evaluate a contest between two teams where there are little physical or skill-related differences. The team that is better placed mentally to handle the challenge has a material advantage that translates directly on to the pitch.
Take for example the Ryder Cup over the weekend, most of the players on both the European and American teams have either won, or are capable of, winning a Major. The difference in technical ability between Man City and Arsenal players wouldn’t be a sizeable gap while in rugby speed can balance out a size advantage, so for me the deciding factor when the best plays the best, is the top two inches.
I remember playing in an end of season tour to New Zealand and Australia in 2006 and Ireland produced two commendably determined performances back-to-back against the All Blacks that yielded precisely nothing in tangible terms. In both Tests we had an opportunity to win but a more resilient New Zealand were better versed with finding a way not to lose.
We poured body and soul into those matches; they consumed our whole focus and by the time we got to Australia we had very little left to give. The reality was that we played one of the best New Zealand sides that I encountered in my time with Ireland and whether we won or lost against the All Blacks, the Test against a very good Wallabies side was always going to be a match too far.
That Irish squad had not reached its potential in a mental or physical capacity. We scrambled hard but lacked the wherewithal to push through the winning line.
Each of the current top five ranked teams in the Rugby World Cup have had to manage performing and winning against teams that represent different challenges, some where the expectation is obvious due to a higher ranking or recent dominance in the head-to-head matches, and for others it’s a straight shoot-out, an “on-the-day” deliverance.
Some teams have coped better with the demands to rotate personnel, for others that necessity has meant a significant drop off in performance terms and allowed the lower ranked side to cause a few problems. Wales laboured against Portugal and Uruguay provided stiffer opposition than might have been anticipated against France and Italy.
Familiarity won’t breed contempt when Ireland and Scotland clash in the Stade de France. There is mutual respect there. The Scots need the mathematics to accompany a bonus point win while Ireland know that they are in complete control of their destiny and that victory leaves them top of the pile in Pool B.
Scotland, who are ranked fifth in the world and can point to a win record of eight in their last 12 matches, have been building quietly and confidently over the last 12 months with performances and results beginning to match their potential.
Watching from the outside, it does seem that the team has benefited from breaking the duopoly of Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg, allowing the former to become the focal point of the team and confirming this by choosing him as captain against France in the summer.
It’s not so long ago that the Scots were trying to find alternatives to playing without the mercurial outhalf. His status has changed substantially to a point where he is leading half-time talks, as was the case over the weekend against Tonga, even though he wasn’t in the 23.
This may just be Gregor Townsend’s masterstroke in trying to find that level of consistency that has eluded Scotland over the last few years. It is a mark of character for the coach that he has been able to park a previously fraught relationship with Russell, to give his team the best chance of success by finding a way to work together.
Over the last few days there has been a more measured approach from Scotland, saying a little less in the media and doing a little more on the field. Romania’s indiscipline gave the Scottish outside backs plenty of latitude to run and they did exactly that with 1,154m carried and 72 defenders beaten.
Townsend drew a line in the sand with his post-match comments where he stated that Scotland planned to attack Ireland with width, and in contrast to a lot of teams, come from depth to maximise the pace of their outside backs.
Ireland haven’t lost to the Scots since 2017 but given the experience within the coaching team and squad complacency shouldn’t be an issue. On paper South Africa were the tougher assignment but that victory means diddly squat if Ireland don’t bring the same focus and application to Saturday’s game.
Individual responsibility is an oft-used phrase and it becomes very poignant this week. Great teams and elite players accept weeks like these as readily as they do the matches that stir the emotional energy. Michael Jordan in the documentary The Last Dance talked about creating a storyline to go after in matchups where he was clearly the dominant player, his overriding drive to win finding a novel way to manifest itself.
The battle lines for Ireland are in the detail. This is unlikely to be a comprehensive win on the scoreboard, but it will need to be a thorough performance in areas that didn’t click against South Africa.
A misfiring set piece didn’t cost Ireland the win against South Africa, but they can’t afford a repeat and will need it to return to much higher levels in execution terms. It feeds into the Irish attacking game, but also into how the team manages possession and territory, something that the Springboks did extremely well against the Scots.
South Africa gave plenty of possession to Scotland but mostly in areas of the field from which their opponents struggled to generate any sort of positive attack. Ireland managed to recreate this off the back foot against South Africa through forcing penalties at the breakdown, an area in which the Scottish backrow will be keen to compete.
Ireland’s game plan can impose similar constraints on Scotland’s attack; a strong Irish display is built primarily on individual accuracy at set piece, and then in managing possession and territory to pressurise Scotland. Call it the zero talent moments, call it work-rate or mental resilience but an Irish win this week will be built on winning the moments that only appear important in the aftermath.
Scotland are underdogs, a mantle that will sit easily. Ireland have been able to deal with expectation for quite a while now and that is the challenge again this weekend.