Gerry Thornley: Ireland's hurt to fuel a stormy response at Murrayfield
Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray should have enough to pull Scotland around the park
Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony during the captain’s run at Murrayfield, Scotland. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Scotland v Ireland, Murrayfield, 2.15 - Live on Virgin Media One and BBC One
A blustery Friday in Edinburgh. Yet it really was the calm before the storm. There wasn’t a blue or green-clad supporter in sight, and only one tourist shop on the Royal Mile had any jerseys or bunting relating to this match.
Only the food vans and the respective team buses at Murrayfield gave an inkling of the first distinctly Celtic showdown in this year’s Six Nations on Saturday, but all will change, change utterly, when the cocky Scots host the wounded Irish.
The weather is forecast to be wild, and the game is liable to follow suit.
Scotland are flying higher than in two decades. They have developed a uniquely inventive style under Gregor Townsend; Murrayfield has become a fortress; their regions are flying like never before; they’ve had enough of Ireland lording it in this fixture, and they’re probably sick of hearing about Ireland’s late bus when beating them two seasons ago.
Meanwhile, last week’s beating by England has taken away some of Ireland’s lustre. But for John Cooney’s late consolation try, England would have usurped them at No 2 in the world rankings.
Possession looks like being key, and Devin Toner’s long-term absence is damaging for country and province
But in the greater scheme of things one defeat hardly constitutes a crisis. Even two in a row – for the first time since the South African tour in 2016 – would not necessarily be the end of the world, much less Ireland’s World Cup, although it would end Ireland’s hopes of retaining the title.
Nonetheless, a restorative win would reassure squad and public alike that last week’s loss may ultimately be just a bump in the road – however painful – than something more significant.
There’s a bigger picture here. Warren Gatland has made no secret of using Saturday’s meeting with Italy as part of Wales’ preparations for the World Cup, as it was last season, and bearing in mind Ireland’s five frontline absentees for the World Cup quarter-final defeat against Argentina, Joe Schmidt has embraced five changes, four of them forced, in light of that loss to England.
The coaching staff were, he said, “pretty excited about seeing some of the guys”, and added that “one of the worst things that can happen is you focus on who you don’t have as opposed to who you do have”.
In listing off Seán O’Brien, Jack Conan, Chris Farrell, Rob Kearney and Quinn Roux, Schmidt said of the latter: “I don’t know if you’ve looked back at Quinn Roux’s moments last week, he was really good off the bench. I thought he showed a real physical edge, and our lineout didn’t seem to suffer.”
Interestingly though, he added: “I think Scotland are going to go after our lineout. They are going to close the gap and bump us. Whatever we do get is likely to be untidy.”
Possession looks like being key, and Devin Toner’s long-term absence is damaging for country and province, although Peter O’Mahony can ease the pressure on both Roux and Rory Best. Against that, Ireland’s scrum looks both stronger to begin with, and finish with. They are also highly motivated.
“You never get past that,” Cian Healy said this week of the defeat to England, especially when “representing a lot of people when you play for Ireland in Ireland, and that hurts”.
“I have to park it. I’ll get my stuff from it, but you hurt from it longer than you think about it. It’s just about building a response to it. You can’t lose and not have a response. It’s the making of how we do it. If you get beaten you have to have something that you come back with. You have to have that performance. You have to have that extra few per cent.”
In addition to Healy, Tadhg Furlong and James Ryan, the return of O’Brien (who sat out Friday’s captain’s Run but is understood to be good to go) compensates for the loss of CJ Stander’s carrying. Conan is liable to carry more from less, and the return of Farrell alongside Bundee Aki gives this Irish team an array of hard-carrying rarely seen before.
The Scots are not without some oomph up front themselves in Ryan Wilson and Josh Strauss, but they are more inclined to bring their backs, and especially Sean Maitland, Tommy Seymour and Stuart Hogg, into play. In tandem with outside centre Huw Jones, this quartet have scored 59 tries in a combined 167 tests.
Under Townsend, with his kindred spirit Finn Russell instinctively pulling the strings – and encouraged to do so – they are craftier than ever. Witness bringing centre Alex Dunbar into an attacking lineout for that try two seasons ago.
“Crafty, isn’t it?” reflected Healy.
“They’re creative, there’s no doubt about it, and they have the players who have the ability to finish off that sort of stuff. The last couple of years they’ve started coming out with trick plays, and it’s not just a trick play for the sake of it, they’re catching people and scoring. They’re demanding creative thinking in defence as well.”
Yet the forecast of howling winds of up to 70kph and showers may prove less suitable to Scotland and their magician at “10”. The move to Racing has emboldened Russell, but for all his fiendish kicking, his is a game ideally made for a dry track and good conditions. After all half his matches this season have been played under a closed roof.
Johnny Sexton is a more experienced, all-weather outhalf. Unless the Irish lineout suffers serious damage, he and Conor Murray should have sufficient ammunition to pull the strings and pull Scotland around the park.
Scotland are dangerous. They will take some subduing. Ultimately, though, it’s hard to see this group of Irish players losing twice in a row.
SCOTLAND: Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors); Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors), Huw Jones (Glasgow Warriors), Sam Johnson (Glasgow Warriors), Sean Maitland (Saracens); Finn Russell (Racing 92), Greig Laidlaw (Clermont Auvergne) (capt); Allan Dell (Edinburgh), Stuart McInally (Edinburgh), Simon Berghan (Edinburgh); Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh), Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors); Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors), Jamie Ritchie (Edinburgh), Josh Strauss (Sale Sharks).
Replacements: Fraser Brown (Glasgow Warriors), Jamie Bhatti (Glasgow Warriors), D’Arcy Rae (Glasgow Warriors), Ben Toolis (Edinburgh), Rob Harley (Glasgow Warriors), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors), Pete Horne (Glasgow Warriors), Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh).
IRELAND: Rob Kearney (Leinster); Keith Earls (Munster), Chris Farrell (Munster), 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), Quinn Roux (Connacht); Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Seán O’Brien (Leinster), Jack Conan (Leinster).
Replacements: Seán Cronin (Leinster), Dave Kilcoyne (Munster), Andrew Porter (Leinster), Ultan Dillane (Connacht), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), John Cooney (Ulster), Joey Carbery (Munster), Jordan Larmour (Leinster).
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Facts and forecast
Overall head-to-head: Played 134. Scotland won 67. Ireland won 62. Drawn five. Abandoned one.
Last five meetings: (2015) Scotland 10 Ireland 40; (RWC warm/up) Ireland 28 Scotland 22; (2016) Ireland 35 Scotland 25; (2017) Scotland 27 Ireland 22; (2018) Ireland 28 Scotland 8.
Biggest wins: Scotland (points and margin) 38-10, 1997 Five Nations.
Ireland (points) 44-22, 2000 Six Nations. (Margin) 36-6, 2003 Six Nations and 40-10, 2015 Six Nations.
Betting (Paddy Powers): 2/1 Scotland, 25/1 Draw, 4/9 Ireland.
Handicap odds (Scotland + 6 points) Evens Scotland, 14/1 Draw, Evens Ireland.
Forecast: Ireland to win.