Focused Ireland can finish Six Nations campaign in style

Scotland have shown real improvement but the suspicion is Ireland are still a better side

Ireland v Scotland, Aviva Stadium, Saturday, 5pm

The final Saturday looks less than Super, and especially so from an Irish perspective.

Readjusting their sights to aim for third instead of first is something of a come-down, whereas the same carrot must be acutely enticing from a Scottish perspective.

Rory Best would be entitled to envy Paul O'Connell's role as captain over the last two corresponding weekends, yet not every Test can have a Six Nations title at stake. And today's outcome will now define Ireland's campaign.


“I think it’s a massive thing for us being at home,” said the captain after yesterday’s captain’s run in the Aviva. “You saw the atmosphere we got on day one against Wales, the atmosphere last week.”

"It's a big honour for us to play for Ireland anywhere but to play at the Aviva is massive and I think just for us there is a real hunger and that's what you get with a slightly less experienced group; that there is a real hunger to keep getting better and better because they don't see not playing for a championship, or that playing for Ireland is any less of a game than maybe this time last year."

More hungry

“That’s the good thing about these guys. You bring in Tommy O’Donnell to start and he’s going to be more hungry than ever. The likes of CJ, guys like this, who want to finish their campaign on a high. I think for me, anyway, playing for Ireland motivationally shouldn’t be an issue but there are so many things for us; the likes of Earlsy, making his 50th appearance.

“He’s a guy who has come through a lot of injuries and a lot of adversity, he’s a fantastic player who has played at the highest level. I think he’s one of those guys that everyone likes so much, a bit like Paulie and Johnny with their big moment last year where we tried so hard to try to get the victory for them. It’s another one for Earlsy as well. It’s another motivating factor.”

There's also his own remarkable landmark, a 50th successive appearance in the Six Nations. And Ireland are defending an eight-game unbeaten home run in the Championship, their longest ever, whereas their opponents have won only once in Dublin since 1998.

Ireland have also been rejuvenated by dipping their bread against the Italians last week, albeit the Scots arrive with a cockier spring in their step than has been the case for yonks.

There does appear to be more substance to this revival. Their scrum has been solidified by the emergence of South African tight-head Willem Nel.

Their lineout is potent and their breakdown work excellent, both in generating quick ball and slowing down or turning over their opponents. A cluster of players, be it the ball-winning Ritchie Gray, the workaholic John Hardie and the hard-carrying Alex Dunbar, are in flying form.

The major difference is that unlike before, the Scots now have a cutting edge, be it the dancing feet and pace of the in-form Hogg, the finishing power of Tim Visser and Tommy Seymour on the wings, or the potent running of Alex Dunbar and Duncan Taylor.

Amid the great style debate enveloping Joe Schmidt’s Ireland, they’ll need to be more selective when attacking out wide. After all, a less talented Scottish team mugged a wildly ambitious Ireland at the Croke Park farewell in 2010.

Breakdown work

For example, as well as hardening their set-piece and forward play, Vern Cotter's attention to detail has sharpened their breakdown work. In addition to bringing Nathan Hines aboard the coaching ticket, Cotter hired Richie Gray, a Scotland age-grade international who had spent the last three years as South Africa's specialist breakdown coach.

Gray invented the 'collision king' training aid, and is working alongside defence coach Matt Taylor as "defensive contact specialist". Evidence of his work could perhaps be seen in Taylor's long-range try last week against France from a quick tap penalty after Seymour had, critically, completed his poach at the breakdown. This Scottish team can steal and then strike stealthily

Then again, for Scotland’s six-day turnaround to be a factor, Ireland need to keep the ball in hand, and ensure the high octane, high tempo rugby that is their hallmark on good days. Then, the more Scotland will have to tackle.

The suspicion also still lurks, all the more so at home, that Ireland still have the better players, ie Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton at half-back, and the better team.

IRELAND: S Zebo (Munster); A Trimble (Ulster), J Payne (Ulster), R Henshaw (Connacht), K Earls (Munster); J Sexton (Leinster), C Murray (Munster); J McGrath (Leinster), R Best (Ulster, capt), M Ross (Leinster); D Ryan (Munster), D Toner (Leinster); CJ Stander (Munster), T O'Donnell (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster).

Replacements: R Strauss (Leinster), C Healy (Leinster), N White (Connacht), U Dillane (Connacht), R Ruddock (Leinster), E Reddan (Leinster), I Madigan (Leinster), F McFadden (Leinster).

SCOTLAND: S Hogg (Glasgow); T Seymour (Glasgow), D Taylor (Saracens), A Dunbar (Glasgow), T Visser (Harlequins); D Weir (Glasgow), G Laidlaw (Gloucester, capt); A Dickinson (Edinburgh), R Ford (Edinburgh), W Nel (Edinburgh); R Gray (Castres), T Swinson (Glasgow); J Barclay (Scarlets), J Hardie (Edinburgh), R Wilson (Glasgow).

Replacements: S McInally (Edinburgh), R Sutherland (Edinburgh), M Low (Exeter), R Harley (Glasgow), J Strauss (Glasgow), H Pyrgos (Glasgow), P Horne (Glasgow), S Lamont (Glasgow).

Referee: Pascal Gauzere (France). Assistant referees: Craig Joubert (South Africa) and Alexandre Ruiz (France).

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times