Ireland have ball-carriers to earn hard yards in wild and windy Murrayfield

Joe Schmidt’s side has array of dynamic runners with more ballast to come from bench

Gerry Thornley and Gavin Cummiskey preview the Ireland team to face Scotland in the Six Nations, in particular the selection of Ian Keatley as reserve out half. Video: David Dunne


Time was when Ireland were not overly endowed with ball-carriers, but one of the most striking features of the team to face Scotland in Saturday’s Six Nations opener, and particularly of the pack, is how liberally sprinkled it is with dynamic runners, and with more to add off the bench.

In addition to the ballast of CJ Stander, Seán O’Brien and Iain Henderson, amongst others, there is Cian Healy, Ultan Dillane and Josh van der Flier to spring from the replacements. With the forecast in Edinburgh warning of ferocious winds, which could occasionally gust over 65km per hour, and also rain, it’s not looking like one of the days when wingers and fullbacks open their curtains and shout “yippee”.

Nonetheless, the importance of a litany of ball-carrying forwards could be all the more significant, albeit the injuries to Peter O’Mahony (a grade one or two hamstring strain) and then Donnacha Ryan to a “niggly” knee injury, simplified the back five in the pack and on the bench.

“It’s pretty good tomorrow [Friday] and then not great Saturday and then pretty good Sunday,” noted Joe Schmidt at the team’s Carton House base before their tea-time flight to Edinburgh. “So we’re just hoping that the weather system either speeds up or slows down and it’s not as bad as it is right now,” he added, nodding to the capricious winds and rains at their Carton House base on Thursday.

“It could be a factor,” he said of the pack’s array of carriers. “It wouldn’t have been something that we’ve intentionally gone for. I think if Pete [O’Mahony] was available, it maybe might have made things a little bit more of a conundrum for us because he has really good collateral with us.

Best games ever

“Last time we played there, I think he had one of his best games ever for us. I remember distinctly a high ball that he took at one stage and he just owned it. He owned the guy who went to tackle him as well. He’s such a good lineout exponent too.”

Hogging possession was a springboard for Ireland’s 35-25 win on the concluding Saturday at the Aviva last season, although as Schmidt noted, Ireland enjoyed around 80 per cent of both possession and territory in the first half, at the end of which they only led 21-13. The previous season, Ireland had 41per cent possession and 36 per cent territory at the half-way point, and led 20-10 en route to the 40-10 win which secured the title on Super Saturday.

“I think every game is different,” said Schmidt, adding: “So it is fickle how fine those margins are. Of course we’re not going to try and give the ball back to them because of some of the individuals they have, whether it’s the combative carry of guys like Ryan Wilson and Jonny Gray, Josh Strauss and Richie Gray, and even the young guys like Zander Fagerson, who’s just stepping up all the time. Or whether it’s their more fleet-footed guys, the likes of Tommy Seymour, Hogg, Maitland aided by Dunbar and Huw Jones, and Watson is the link between the two.

“So you just don’t want to give them ball. You don’t want to allow them time and space because they make really good use of it.”

The three meetings between Munster and Glasgow this season have fuelled their rivalry, and despite the absence of Ryan and O’Mahony, there are seven Munstermen in Ireland’s match-day 23, with 13 Glasgow players in Scotland’s squad. Yet Schmidt does not expect this bad blood to spill over in Murrayfield.

Different hue

“I don’t at all. I really think that once you’re playing in a national side that it very much becomes focused on a new beginning and a new team against a new team. I know there’s a number of Munster guys on our team and there’s a number of Glasgow Warriors in theirs but it’s a different environment, Ireland against Scotland, and that in itself puts a different hue on the whole thing.”

Nor has there been additional focus on protecting Conor Murray, despite Glasgow’s apparent targeting of him in the most recent meeting and the admission by his Scottish counterpart and captain, Greig Laidlaw, that they would do the same.

“You always try to protect your nine. I’m sure that Gloucester protect Greig Laidlaw, and Clermont will next year, and Scotland will in two days’ time. You do try and allow a little bit of time and space for your nine to get the ball away or get the ball into the air just because they’re often under a lot of pressure and you know that their kick space is going to be targeted because teams don’t want to give them the opportunity to kick well.

“I think we’ve got two of probably the best kicking nines in the game so I think they will be conscious of looking after Greig and we’ll be conscious of looking after Conor and that would be a natural thing.”

Vern Cotter has made three changes from the team which beat Georgia in November, recalling Stormers centre Huw Jones, who scored two tries in his first Test start against Australia, hooker Fraser Brown and number eight Josh Strauss, in a meaty-looking Scottish selection of their own.

IRELAND (v Scotland, Murrayfield, Saturday, 2.25pm): Rob Kearney; Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Simon Zebo; Paddy Jackson, Conor Murray; Jack McGrath, Rory Best (capt), Tadhg Furlong; Iain Henderson, Devin Toner; CJ Stander, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip.

Replacements: Niall Scannell, Cian Healy, John Ryan, Ultan Dillane, Josh van der Flier, Kieran Marmion, Ian Keatley, Tommy Bowe.

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