How Ireland could win Six Nations title this Saturday . . .
France would need to deny England in Paris but it could be all over this weekend
Amid all the build-up to Saturday’s penultimate round of matches in the 2018 Six Nations, and all roads leading to Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day, aside from the very real banana skin Scotland provide to any hopes of a Grand Slam, Ireland can actually win a third title in five years tomorrow.
Were Ireland to beat Scotland in Lansdowne Road (kick-off 2.15pm), and were France to deny England a victory in Paris in the ensuing game, Ireland would be champions. Ditto if Ireland were to win with a bonus point, England would have to match that achievement in the Stade de France.
Needless to say, this is not something that Joe Schmidt allows himself to think about.
“No, it’s one of those things that is not a controllable for us. It’s like all of the noise outside the bubble. Inside the bubble it is very much about being pragmatic, getting the process right, trying to get our set-piece right, our defence right, trying to get our phase-attack right so that we can be as competitive as possible, because in the end if you allow yourself to dream it’s not productive time.
“It’s a nice time, it would be fantastic, but is just not productive to do it and it’s even less productive knowing the form that Scotland are in and the confidence they bring.”
Pausing for a moment, and then smiling, he said: “Ask me in about 52 hours.”
The buoyant Scots themselves retain hopes of a first title since 1999. With Gregor Townsend adding to the sound foundations laid by Vern Cotter, they strike when the opposition least expect it, and so there is plenty of method in their supposed madness according to Schmidt.
“I would be massively against pigeon-holing people. I think some of the surveys people do and some of the labels people give people, are a disservice to the person. People think that Gregor is a bit of a maverick player, he is a high-risk taker. Gregor is incredibly methodical and very well planned. Far from giving a massive licence for everyone to do what they like, there is a method to any madness that happens, there is a method to anything which is incredibly methodical visibly.”
‘Pack will challenge us’
“I think Gregor Townsend is too intelligent to bring a package that’s predictable. I think we have got to be prepared for whatever they bring and there is no doubt that the Scotland forward pack will challenge us.”
In restoring Tadhg Furlong and Garry Ringrose to the starting line-up, Schmidt resisted the temptation to reinstate Iain Henderson, instead retaining James Ryan and Devin Toner, the primary ball-winner and most capped player under Schmidt’s Irish watch. Schmidt also hailed Toner’s recent form, his carrying and his under-appreciated link play.
“It’s a little bit easier to put Tadhg straight back because if he is replaced and Andrew Porter gets an injury you can actually bring Tadhg back on where as you can’t in the second-row. I’m not saying it was an easy decision; it was probably a 20 minute debate about whether James Ryan is the one who goes on to the bench, or Dev or Iain Henderson.”
In tandem with recalls for Jordan Larmour and Jordi Murphy, Henderson’s presence also adds to the likely impact of the bench. Heretofore, that hasn’t been as pronounced as Schmidt would have liked.
“It’s quite hard to be generic or generalised about the bench because we assess individual contributions and there’s been a few guys who have come off the bench and been really good. There’s been some other guys who have had real enthusiasm, but maybe not quite had the accuracy that needs to accompany that enthusiasm and that’s been a little bit of a frustration.”
Schmidt understandably gave short shrift to there being any issue about Johnny Sexton’s goal-kicking in the light of one rare and relative off -day against Wales, and laughed off the idea that his outhalf could be more judicious in contribution in contact and at the breakdown.
‘He’s a competitor’
“You cannot say that to Johnny,” said Schmidt with a knowing laugh. “I don’t know how well you know him but he is so competitive.
“I just think he wants to compete for everything,” he added, citing the tackle on Ross Moriarty behind the Welsh goal-line which earned a five metre scrum, followed by Sexton’s own pick-and-go and then Cian Healy’s try.
“Do I wish he was more judicious? Sometimes I do. I remember sitting in the coaches’ box with Jono Gibbes at one stage and Jono saying ‘would you ever get Johnny to stay out of that stuff, leave it to my boys. We will look after that’. But he’s a competitor.”
Schmidt also took umbrage over the notion that Ireland merely “bullied” the Welsh into submission, pointing to the line breaks from deep by Sexton and Keith Earls, as well as Sexton’s pass for Jacob Stockdale’s try, and suggesting some analysts “do their homework”.
Similarly, he took issue with Warren Gatland’s post-match assertion that the higher the ball-in-play time, the better a team’s chances of beating Ireland, but that it was the lowest in the tournament at the Aviva two weeks ago.
“It’s funny you mention that, because the highest game minutes was a game where there was very few passes made where I think there was about 30 more kicks than any other game,” said the Irish coach in reference to the England-Wales game when both teams kicked the ball 39 times.
“You can keep the ball in play all you like and play no rugby. I think it’s one of those things that might fit snugly in summarising a game but it’s probably a truism that you can make stats say anything you like.”