Gordon D’Arcy: Confident Scotland can tear up Ireland’s winning script

Joe Schmidt and Vern Cotter’s tactical duel will decide this Six Nations battle

With Vern Cotter beginning his second season as head coach and having nearly made a semi final in the 2015 World Cup, could this be the year when Scotland turn around their recent Six Nations fortunes? John O'Sullivan reports. Video: David Dunne


CJ Stander’s try against Italy was straight from the Joe Schmidt coaching manual. The same as before but different. Lots of smoke and mirrors.

Different versions of the move had been shown in previous games only for Johnny Sexton to change up, thereby luring the Italian midfield and primarily centre Michele Campagnaro into a poor defensive read.

Jack McGrath’s peel off the lineout and quality of pass to Josh van der Flier ensured the flanker was not under pressure at second receiver. Van der Flier’s pass to Conor Murray was a crisp delivery.

That should be the norm but two forwards igniting an attack is always good to see. Murray’s quality pass on the gainline, with Jared Payne’s straight decoy run fixing two defenders, meant Sexton had just enough time to put Keith Earls through the gap (before being emptied by Campagnaro). Andrew Trimble then Keith Earls then Rory Best were both tackled short of the line but efficient clearing out allowed Stander to muscle over.

Here was the execution Ireland had been criticised for lacking.

Against Wales there was another version of the move with Sexton sprinting through the hole himself. That’s how Schmidt teams, primarily through Sexton, play poker with the opposition. The Italians had done their research yet the attack was tweaked enough to catch them cold. Campagnaro came up to hit SextoN only to find himself committing to the wrong man and thereby entered no man’s land.

It’s another marginally late tackle on Ireland’s outhalf but the move is designed for that to happen; to draw a midfield defender into the hole and free up a tiny gap for the blindside Irish winger (Later Sergio Parisse pulled out of his late tackle just enough to hurt Johnny but avoid a yellow card).

Now, Scotland will have done their homework but they cannot know what option Sexton will take next time the move is happening.

A genuine Test match is promised on Saturday, for so many reasons, but the most interesting aspect will be the tactical duel between Schmidt and Vern Cotter (they know each other inside out having worked together at Bay of Plenty and Clermont before facing each other at club and international level). Cotter owes Joe one after last season.

This Six Nations being considered a success or failure gets laid on the line here. This is not the same Scotland side we hammered 40-10 at Murrayfield 12 months ago to retain the championship. Unfortunately it’s a very different Ireland team as well.

I hope we go out to score tries, and prove that Ireland are still better than undoubtedly improved opponents, rather than adopt the positional squeeze, which can be interpreted as a team trying to avoid defeat.

Not that any team wants to look pretty and lose.

Scotland are the more settled group in year two under Cotter but they come with a six day turnaround in contrast to a fresh Ireland, having hauled off the main players after 50 minutes against Italy, which was effectively just a run out.

Secend Captains

Scotland are playing with more confidence. Now, we did just run in nine tries but their victory over France gives credence to everything Cotter has put in place.

Off script

Stuart HoggSix NationsAlex Dunbar

Hogg is allowed go off script whenever he sees a mismatch in attack – and he sees plenty of them with his involvements now having an impact on Scottish results. As a second receiver Hogg is no Matt Giteau, he doesn’t control those around him, doesn’t play the second five-eighth role. Instead he looks to exploit flaws in the opposing defence.

The challenge for all Ireland’s outside backs, not just Zebo who is the primary game breaker, will be to reach a similar level of influence.

Hogg has the skills to do something out of the ordinary but more importantly the confidence. Irish players are allowed go against the grain – and there has been increasingly encouraging moments from Keith Earls and Robbie Henshaw this season – but the collective can be weighed down by the fear of error or being caught out of position.

So they tend to stick to an award winning script.

There are other subplots. Taylor and Dunbar are certainly the biggest test for the Henshaw and Payne partnership since they overcame the Springbok challenge in 2014. For all the pressure they will be under defensively Henshaw and Payne can turn the tables when Ireland are in possession.

Ireland have a clear advantage at outhalf and possibly scrumhalf. I think Conor Murray is a better player but Greig Laidlaw is having a major influence for Scotland in this campaign.

Sexton, despite all the punishment, has really grown into the season.

Take the length of the field try finished off by Jamie Heaslip. Zebo’s outside break and offload put Payne down the sideline but it was Johnny’s support run and decision making that ensured the seven points. You cannot underestimate the little dummy he threw before straightening as Edoardo Padovani had to turn back towards him so when he passed to Andrew Trimble it meant there was an overlap because two more supporting players, Fergus McFadden and Jamie, kept on script.

Bigger picture

Italy had four defenders against Sexton and Trimble. Parisse stepping out of the line for an intercept seemed naive, when he should have held position and tackled Trimble, but Johnny’s slight delay of the pass provided sufficient bait for the Italian captain.

There’s perhaps more at stake for Ireland this weekend than any other nation. Scotland have their two victories, Wales will smash Italy and finish second while England have already won the championship.

As regards France, I don’t know how they turn it around but it’s a real worry for the Six Nations that they are so deeply mired in mediocrity. The Scottish game showed how much they are crying out for structure. I thought the arrival of Guy Noves would set them free but it’s now apparent just how difficult it will be to undo the damage of the previous four years under Philippe Saint-André and the reliance on a kicking game.

England really should put them away and capture their first Grand Slam in 13 years.

Not that I’m as convinced about England’s credentials as Eddie Jones.

I don’t feel they have beaten any team convincingly and when Wales upped the tempo they were found out defensively.

That, more than anything else entering this final weekend, makes us wonder about the current state of the Six Nations.

Ireland have taken a backwards step but it is understandable when we factor in retirement, injuries and the quality of player remaining.

Not that I think Joe has made any glaring mistakes this year.

Joe is a pragmatist who seeks to cover every variable. Just because the public doesn’t agree with his selections doesn’t make them wrong.

Unpopular decisions

Dropping the Ulster centre last weekend was justified by Fergus McFadden covering right wing, left wing and centre during his three cameos. Ferg carried hard, made big impact tackles and was involved in a few tries.

That’s what being a coach is all about. Making tough, sometimes unpopular decisions to ensure the team is not get exposed. Dillane’s impressive arrival at Twickenham began a drum beat for him to start against Italy but look how Donnacha Ryan and Devin Toner responded.

Both produced their best performances of the season.

The dynamic of the Ireland versus Scotland fixture has not been reversed but certainly appears to be levelling up. What I do know is every Schmidt team that took the field in my five years coached by him was highly competitive. That’s a collection of all the little things he creates in the team environment. Ireland only lose one way nowadays: the opposition must be superior and accurate and luckier.

There are assumed facts with this Ireland team: The mentality is to fight for everything, not let your team-mates down and accept that you will be judged on exceptionally high standards. The most cutting Schmidt video reviews were always the calmest. You missed a tackle here, you were out of position there, if you had of done this here we would have scored there. And we would be staring at a 10 point swing.

So you learn. Fast. You trust the system. Stick to the script. Unless you know a little ad-libbing is worth it.

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