Charles R Swindol is convinced that life is 10 per cent what happens to him and 90 per cent how he reacts to it. The loss of a lineout can at times have a far greater impact than 10 per cent. Hidden alongside last weekend’s 260 breakdowns were 11 scrums and 20 lineouts. In truth all played a massive part in the ultimate outcome. But field sport can’t be isolated in single plays.
For instance Ireland lost four lineouts against Australia in November and won the match but lost four against Wales and lost. The difference? Momentum, field position, scoreboard and most importantly emotional energy impact when those losses occur.
That lineout loss on 59:46 on their five-metre line, having just survived the Wales turnover and counter attack that threatened a try, was a huge blow to the emotional energy in green. Five from home Ireland shortened to a five-man lineout with the props at either end leaving a formidable pod of Devin Toner, Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony in the middle. It failed. A shortened lineout heightens the success rate and five from home means there are buckets of exit strategy options with the Irish support players five metres closer than the Welsh.
The score was 15-9 to Wales and Ireland had been battered in the corridor of power. The lost lineout in these circumstances takes on monumental proportions – back defending once more but this time five metres from home.
End result – try.
Losing the lineout
Yes, off days occur where opportunities are not converted. Ireland had them but so too had Wales. From that turnover ball earlier Welsh outhalf Dan Biggar had a pod of Jamie Roberts, Luke Charteris and Leigh Halfpenny stacked out wide facing the last Irish defender Tommy Bowe. Inexplicably Biggar fired over all three into touch; but then Ireland lost their lineout.
Put simply, a struggling Scotland will have spotted weaknesses in Ireland's 10-match bullet proof form until Cardiff and – although nowhere near Wales – they'll sense a chance.
The opportunities: Scotland miss many tackles and concede many penalties, with Scotland's openside Blair Cowan a massive penalty offender. Considering the furore over Wayne Barnes' interpretations last week Ireland need to expose Cowan to the referee. The more yards after contact Ireland gain will put Cowan into a reverse mode where he'll be tempted to ignore the gate, focusing on the ball. This will create the wrong picture for referee Jerome Garces, forcing decisions which for an openside is not ideal. But yards after contact will also expose the Scottish defensive structures.
Yards after contact is an interesting challenge for Ireland. In Cardiff time and again the ball carrier took possession standing before looking up and trying to eke out a gap that simply didn’t exist. Tomorrow Ireland can’t afford to replicate this play – not necessarily because Scotland have the defence to neutralise but because of the challenges that lie ahead.
Start as you mean to continue. The standing start and one-out carry should be banned for the next 80 minutes. At worst the first fatty receiver should ship one out prior to contact with a hard running line from Seán O’Brien.
Scotland, like Wales, commit very few numbers to the breakdown in an effort to fill the defensive field. The difference is Scotland don’t have Sam Warburton in their number seven jersey. This will make our ball much faster (well below the crucial five seconds) which should transform our midfield performance. Off days occur, no player is immune but to assume that a player is off without massive influence from the opposition is crazy.
Scotland will pressurise but nowhere near what Wales achieved and absolutely nowhere like the Welsh breakdown. The man that'll suffer especially is inside centre Matt Scott who will be starved of crucial seconds to reset his defence. Adding to his woes, off the top Irish lineouts to Robbie Henshaw. Ireland need to target the Scottish blindside winger . In Cardiff Ireland targeted the inside blind ball off openside plays; tomorrow they need plenty of rewinds down the tram tracks that will reap fruit.
Ireland also need to maul the life out of Scotland; batter their emotional and physical energy whilst controlling the clock, field position and scoreboard. With only 10 or so Irish lineouts Ireland should set up mauls beyond lineouts, in general play off dead rucks, backrow scrum moves and kick-off receptions to suck players before clever starter plays from the maul to further suck in their backline creating space out wide or penalties. A one-on-one from Luke Fitzgerald (welcome back) and Bowe would be nice to see. But off Scottish lineouts it’s worth not competing in the air to blitz on the deck where, although Scotland get the free ball, they will suffer immediately.
Richie Gray's absence is crucial to Ireland's lineout success and his replacement Jim Hamilton is a monster who will dwarf the Irish forwards. Speed over the ground is not his forte and, although a good Scottish target, he tends to stay high in the maul weakening their set up, especially off shortened lineouts. Hamilton packs down behind tighthead Euan Murray which can be exploited by Cian Healy, assuming Garces is on the same wavelength.
David Denton in the middle of the Scottish backrow is a powerful carrier when in the mood but lacks the consistency and simply drifts out of games for long periods. Rob Harley, who is demoted to the bench for beefier breakdown presence Adam Ashe is a loss to Scotland's lineout defence.
Player to watch
Stuart Hogg is the player to watch and his team react accordingly where he’s the standard counter attack bearer (superior to Ireland). However, he is poorly supported as Alex Dunbar’s knee injury represents another opportunity for Ireland.
Scotland have over recent years been full of super, but flawed, rugby in the exciting image of Glasgow and their coach Gregor Townsend but this Scottish team have flaws all over and, in lacking sufficient quality, can be beaten by plus ten.
Finally, plus 10 Irish points will stifle England’s Championship hopes who will beat France by single figures but, Wales will put 30 plus points on Italy.
So the real questions: did Ireland beat the Italians by enough and can Wales transfer their intensity from Cardiff to Rome? Unfortunately, I think so.