While strolling up the Galtee Mountains for a Paddy's Day march on the 3,009 ft Galtymore, a thought crossed my mind: why are Scotland and Ireland languishing in the table?
After all, hubris aside, there are at least seven players togging out tomorrow who make my Six Nations team of the championship: in the pack there is Jack McGrath and the phenomenal Scottish tighthead Willem Nel (what a battle awaits us here!); CJ Stander is certainly amongst the tournament's best performers, as is openside John Hardie. In the backs, it's a toss-up between the very different styles of Conor Murray and Greig Laidlaw. Johnny Sexton is flying at outhalf and at fullback Stuart Hogg is in the zone.
For Ireland, it’s an obvious transition in building new legends and leaders whilst suffering huge injuries to key players. Unfortunately, the pivot towards a more expansive game may have to wait a wee while yet.
For Scotland it’s been a long road of six-out-of-10 performances that result in tough defeats. Their set-piece has so often put their offloading game into brilliant positions. But just when they need accuracy out of touch, it malfunctions. Ross Ford’s lineout throw struggles to hit the target when he applies a high arc. Scotland’s hooker has a meaty scrum around him but he is liable to be forced up and popped out; this is something Ireland may explore.
Or just when that final pass needs to go to hand or not be passed at all, they throw a crazy one. But under Vern Cotter and his imports they are edging into an eight-out- of-10 team with wins coming. Had outhalf Finn Russell and secondrow Jonny Gray been playing, I’d call it evens. But Scotland have also a tough six-day turnaround after the high of beating France.
Last Saturday my mind wandered, numbed by the onslaught at the Aviva; nine tries to two will do that. The second half had just begun with the score standing 25-3. Italy had a scrum inside their half on their right-hand side. Ignoring the scrum, I watched Italy’s backline set up before reviewing Ireland’s. It was a classic three-and-a-half defence, with Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne all in line. Andrew Trimble on the right wing was wider but 15 metres back. As the ball was fed, Italy were locked into their pre-ordained move. However, as the strike through the scrum reached Sergio Parisse it was Ireland who attacked for Payne to score under the posts.
Long before scrumhalf Guglielmo Palazzani got his hands on the ball ,Trimble accelerated into the defensive line giving Payne the freedom to go for it. A real problem for Italy was the locked-in move. Their outhalf Edoardo Padovani had only one target in mind, his outside centre Michele Campagnaro ignoring Ireland’s changed defensive line. Leonardo Sarto and Gonzalo García ran decoy lines but Payne read the intended target all the way.
Crucially, as he targeted the air ball from Padovani his defensive team-mate Trimble was ready to absolutely smash Campagnaro. Advantage Ireland either way. Compare that to CJ Stander’s try and the way Sexton manipulated the evolving Italian defence to put Keith Earls through the hole.
Scotland, unlike Italy, have a much better read in both attack and defence. Ireland will need all Sexton’s trickery to fix their onrushing midfield whilst getting the ball into wider channels. Here’s where top-end speedsters such as Craig Gilroy and Matt Healy would really compliment Earls and Simon Zebo, even though Trimble has been phenomenal in reading and executing his defence. Subtle chips from Sexton over the top will second-guess their fast defensive speed. Right winger Tommy Seymour is very comfortable in the air so Ireland need to avoid him.
The Scottish captain and scrumhalf Laidlaw picks up unusual defensive positions, such as the front of a defensive lineout, which is worthy of attacking. Set up and rewind. He can also drift from the neutral position behind defensive rucks.
Scotland are looking for an offloading game to dictate tempo. To this end, they need quick ball. If they get it, then Ireland are in for a very challenging afternoon. Their opening try against Wales off 21 phases was wonderful. Laidlaw picked and directed the point of contact; one minute narrow, then slightly wider, then narrow, then he attacked, then wide once more, all with a first receiver taking flat, all comfortable in contact and offloading – and crucially little sign of the silly pass.
Disrupt Scotland’s ambition
So maybe this is the thinking behind the change at openside for Ireland. Is it that Josh van der Flier is tired or is it Tommy O’Donnell is a slightly better reader of the evolving breakdown? It’s the latter, I feel. O’Donnell is also slightly more imposing over the ball.
Both have great speed and instincts going forward so I fancy selection is about who has the best chance to disrupt Scotland’s ambition from the quick ball.
Finally, Hogg jumped as high as any GAA legend in Croke Park when the final whistle blew in Edinburgh and France were vanquished. Why is he so good? He plays unfettered (ask his grateful winger Tim Visser), which brings out the beautiful offloads and running lines.
But like Brian O’Driscoll before him, he knows when to take directly off his scrumhalf and worm and squirm his way over for crucial tries in the trenches. Where ironically he can do much more damage than out wide, where tired Irish fatties in heavy traffic will find him very hard to stop.