Time for Ireland to deliver the goods again

Anything close to the display against All Blacks should suffice against Scotland

Gerry Thornley takes a look at Joe Schmidt's Irish team and assesses their chances in the 2014 Six Nations Championship. Video: Daniel O' Connor


Last time out will never be forgotten and though it wasn’t good enough that day it assuredly would be on any other, including tomorrow. Given the three month hiatus since the heartbreaking defeat to New Zealand, there shouldn’t really be a hangover, but whether Ireland can replicate the accuracy and precision along with the emotional intensity for this Sunday afternoon kick-off is another matter.

The players and Joe Schmidt will have learned plenty about each other last November. Applying the lessons from the Australian defeat, the first period especially was a wonderful amalgam of Schmidt-style rugby and Irish emotion – hard carrying into the gain line, accurate clearing out from the first one or two players in, and Conor Murray swiftly moving the ball out to receivers running from depth or sniping himself.

Coupled with variations in running lines and use of passes back inside, along with a potent maul and territory, it was a heady, high tempo brew, which stretched even the world’s best team close to breaking point in yielding a three-try, 19-0 lead.

Soft shoulders
The key was the ability of the carriers to seek out soft shoulders and break the gain line by taking the collisions on their terms, and in this regard of course, Ireland have lost their primary weapon in Sean O’Brien.

“His numbers were unbelievable against New Zealand, on both sides of the ball – defensively and in attack,” said Schmidt yesterday. “And I guess it’s a real roll-your-sleeves-up day for the back-row, and even the second-row will have to chip in.” And Cian Healy.

Accordingly perhaps, to further share the load, Luke Marshall has been recalled despite Gordon D’Arcy’s superb performance against the All Blacks, while also as forecast the other two enforced changes see Chris Henry and Andrew Trimble recalled.

Video: Previous Six Nations highlights, Ireland vs Scotland

Marshall tore the Scottish midfield to shreds in Murrayfield if – as can be his wont – not turning those breaks into tries, but he is a potent carrier with a kicking game to boot. Trimble’s selection adds to the physicality and aerial strength of the Irish back three – areas where the Sean Maitland, Stuart Hogg and Sean Lamont trio – look designed to test them given the selection of Duncan Weir.

Common denominators in all Schmidt’s picks, including Dan Tuohy ahead of Ian Henderson, are both familiarity with the coach’s ways along with match hardness and form. There remains scope for freshening things up six days hence against Wales, with Luke Fitzgerald perhaps also entering the equation, although Schmidt maintains this was not a factor.

“We can’t afford to lose our first game, to be honest. It’s pivotal for us to get a good start. You only get one shot at your first game and you’ve got to give it your best shot I think. As I say I’m still learning in this job. It’s a competition of five games but it’s five finals and that probably makes it slightly different to the autumn. . . ”

Won eight
And, although Ireland have won eight of their last ten openers whereas Scotland have won of their last ten, therein lies another rub. Ireland are in something of a no-win position, and for the campaign to be in any way successful, simply have to win, whereas the Scots are in vintage party pooper mode.

It’s one thing to generate the emotional intensity witnessed against New Zealand – Scotland is a different matter. The crowd were and will again be a barometer. Despite the Sunday afternoon kick-off, the presence of the All Blacks and the haka ensured there were virtually no empty green seats when the teams emerged. Encouraged by Ireland’s start, what followed was one of the most febrile occasions the Aviva has experienced.

On the day Brian O’Driscoll becomes Ireland’s most capped player, and Rob Kearney reaches his half-century, there are ingredients there again and post-November all three home games are sold-out. However, can Devin Toner, to name one, crowd and team alike scale those heights again, as it were?

“All the good things we did against New Zealand in terms of accuracy and detail need to be there, but that doggedness needs to be there that was there in 2009 as well,” ventured Paul O’Connell yesterday.

“The emotion and passion of playing Six Nations as well – it is about finding that balance between being technically excellent and remembering how physical rugby is when you go out to play the game.”

Ireland also need to perform in the right order, not go wide-wide and set up targets for Scotland defensively, but play territory, use the maul as well as the hard-carrying, high tempo recycle, and apply scoreboard pressure of their own. They are much better equipped to do so, not least at half-back, where Murray and Johnny Sexton can have big games.

It remains to be seen whether Scott Johnson’s promise of a high tempo, hold-on-to your-hats two-way set-to materialises, for it looks like a Scottish selection designed to keep things tight before unleashing some of the athletes and ball players off the bench.

Helpfully though, it would seem tomorrow’s long-range forecast of a dry day with a slight breeze, albeit with a small chance of rain, offers the prospect of a break from this sodden week. So maybe a Sunday afternoon kick-off will be to Ireland’s benefit.