Concentrated Ireland can clear penultimate hurdle with aplomb
Scotland unlikely to be able to match Ireland’s physicality and intensity over 80 minutes
Ireland v Scotland, Aviva Stadium. Kick-off: 2.15pm.
(On TV: Live on TV3/UTV/ITV)
Even with another early afternoon kick-off, and more forecasts of cold and rain, rarely has an Ireland-Scotland game stirred the soul quite like this one.
Rarely has a Scottish team travelled with such a spring in their step and dared to dream of maintaining a title push until the final day, and rarely has there been so much at stake for an Irish team, namely the chance of winning the Six Nations title and earning a shot at a Grand Slam. That’s all.
If Ireland win and England don’t subsequently in Paris, or if Ireland win with a bonus point and England fail to do so, Ireland will be champions for the third time in five years. There’s also the added distraction/incentive (dilute to taste) of setting up a tilt at a third Grand Slam in history.
Ireland tend not to do penultimate legs of Grand Slam tilts very efficiently, even when they win, but one senses that won’t apply here. Not under Joe Schmidt. Not in such a process-driven environment, and there were enough flaws in the three wins to date for Schmidt and co to maintain exacting standards.
So it was that captain Rory Best ventured yesterday: “We already talked a bit about the improvements that we can have in our defence. I think there are always improvements in our attack. Who knows where the ceiling is with this team, but I feel that every time we sit down, and it is the beauty about having such good coaches as well, they find fault or room for improvement, in a lot of the things we do.”
“Even when we are reasonably happy with things, because they are so professional and because they see things that other people wouldn’t see, they are always seeing things that we can do better. Until we walk into a meeting with Joe and he says ‘You know what lads I couldn’t find one fault in that game,’ then we’ll not have reached our ceiling. You all know Joe, probably as well as I do, and I can’t see that happening in the near future.”
As an aside, Best also confirmed that he and the IRFU are “at a fairly advanced stage” in agreeing a new one-year deal. However, he added that “due to a few unforeseen circumstances,” which he didn’t clarify, “it isn’t been as quickly through as we would like but hopefully we would have news on that – good, bad or indifferent – in the future; the very near future.”
It should indeed happen.
The late arrival of Ireland’s bus to Murrayfield last year was also aired again yesterday, but however much it contributed to their slow start and falling 21-5 down by the half-hour mark, it’s worth remembering Ireland should still have won that match. They came back to lead 22-21 and won the ball 75 times in the Scottish 22, as against the home side’s tally of 31. And that was without Johnny Sexton.
Sexton is playing as well, if not better, than ever, and in tandem with Conor Murray is the main reason Ireland should win – if the two stay out of trouble and healthy, and thus control the game and decide its course at key moments with the right play.
In any case, forewarned is forearmed, all the more so in light of Scotland ending ten years of hurt in the Calcutta Cup a fortnight ago when becoming only the second team to beat England in 25 games.
Ireland, of course, are the other, and with two weeks to prepare for this game, they will be well-primed. Devin Toner’s inclusion from the start is clearly designed to take care of the primary aim of securing possession. Given the forecast, Ireland have the front five and pack power to impose their maul and scrum, as well as confine the Scots to loaves and fishes.
With Finn Russell architect-in-chief, Scotland did most damage to England off turnover ball, in keeping with a policy of seeking to attack teams when they least expect it. Russell and co will look to roll the dice again. There’s no other way they could have beaten England or can beat Ireland, and with the prolific Jones flourishing at outside centre having been wrongly picked at ‘12’ in the opening defeat, and Stuart Hogg the most dangerous full-back in the tournament, they have the weapons to expose Ireland’s hitherto vulnerable outside edges.
However, it was Barclay’s ability over the ball which led to Sean Maitland’s try and Jones’ second try, and aside from the feeling that the Calcutta Cup was also Scotland’s cup final, it’s impossible to imagine that Ireland will under-resource their rucks and be as ineffective in their clear-outs as a strangely lethargic England were.
Every Irish carry into contact will be swiftly followed by two men clearing out efficiently. It’s why they recycled 124 of 125 rucks against Wales who, admittedly, backed off in the second half after being whistled off the park at the breakdown in the first half.
Barclay, Hamish Watson and co will be judicious in looking to latch onto the ball or counter-ruck, and will be more dangerous in that regard than Wales, but equalling Ireland’s physicality and intensity over 80 minutes away from home is liable to prove a taller task than a fortnight ago.
Scotland have found their feet in Murrayfield, where they’ve won nine of their last ten. But, despite that win in Sydney last June, their away record in the Six Nations is abysmal. That 34-7 defeat in Cardiff followed last season’s 61-21 defeat in Twickenham, and leaves them with just six wins in 48 away games in the Six Nations, of which four were in Rome.
Meantime, Ireland are unbeaten in a dozen Six Nations games at the Aviva Stadium under Schmidt. Furthermore, they are on a run of ten successive victories, home or away. Records, and sequences, are made to be broken, but that’s hard to ignore, and hard to see happening here.
Akin to the Welsh game, one can envisage Ireland lording possession and territory. In which case, attempts by Russell, Hogg and co to play from deep or play catch-up could play further into Irish hands. Ireland’s bench also has oomph and X-factor. It would thus be no surprise were Ireland to see out this game more strongly, and so really put it up to England in Paris.
IRELAND: Rob Kearney (Leinster); Keith Earls (Munster), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Bundee Aki (Connacht), Jacob Stockdale (Ulster); Jonathan Sexton (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster); Cian Healy (Leinster), Rory Best (Ulster) (capt), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); James Ryan (Leinster), Devin Toner (Leinster); Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Dan Leavy (Leinster), CJ Stander (Munster).
Replacements: Seán Cronin (Leinster), Jack McGrath (Leinster), Andrew Porter (Leinster), Iain Henderson (Ulster), Jordi Murphy (Leinster), Kieran Marmion (Connacht), Joey Carbery (Leinster), Jordan Larmour (Leinster).
SCOTLAND: Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors); Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh), Huw Jones (Glasgow Warriors), Pete Horne (Glasgow Warriors), Sean Maitland (Saracens); Finn Russell (Glasgow Warriors), Greig Laidlaw (Clermont Auvergne); Gordon Reid (London Irish), Stuart McInally (Edinburgh), Simon Berghan (Edinburgh); Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh), Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors); John Barclay (Scarlets) (capt), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh), Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors).
Replacements: Fraser Brown (Glasgow Warriors), Jamie Bhatti (Glasgow Warriors), Willem Nel (Edinburgh), Tim Swinson (Glasgow Warriors), David Denton (Worcester Warriors), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors), Nick Grigg (Glasgow Warriors), Lee Jones (Glasgow Warriors).
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Overall head to head: Played 132. Ireland 61 wins. Draws 5. Scotland 66 wins. Abandoned 1.
Last five meetings: (2014, 6N) Ireland 28 Scotland 6. (2015, 6N) Scotland 10 Ireland 40, Murrayfield. (RWC warm-up) Ireland 28 Scotland 22, Aviva Stadium. (2016, 6N) Ireland 35 Scotland 25, Aviva Stadium. (2017, 6N) Scotland 27 Ireland 22, Murrayfield.
Five-game formguide: Ireland – Won 23-20 v Fiji (h). Won 28-19 v Argentina (h). Won 15-13 v France (a). Won 56-19 v Italy (h). Won 37-27 v Wales (h). Scotland – Lost 22-17 v New Zealand (h). Won 53-24 v Australia (h). Lost 34-7 v Wales (a). Won 32-26 v France (h). Won 25-13 v England (h).
Match Odds (Paddy Power): ¼ Ireland, 25/1 Draw, 7/2 Scotland. Handicap odds (Scotland + 10 pts) Evens Ireland, 18/1 Draw, Evens Scotland.
Forecast: Ireland to win.