Rugby World Cup: Schmidt inspired by Ireland’s calm ahead of Celtic battle
Ireland at full strength up front for World Cup opener with James Ryan the influential force
Ireland v Scotland, International Stadium, Yokohama, Sunday 4.45pm (8.45am Irish time. On TV: Live on RTÉ, Eir Sport and ITV
So it’s finally here, the defining game of Ireland’s pool campaign. It’s been a long time coming, but win this and Ireland are set fair for the Brave Blossoms in six days’ time, and then, perhaps, the knock-out stages as well. Lose it though, and it’s squeaky bum time.
Then there really would be no tomorrows beyond next Saturday’s rendezvous with the comparatively well-rested hosts. What’s more, after beating Russia in last night’s opening match, Japan would then trail their sights on Ireland.
Yet while Ireland and Scotland may well still advance to the knock-out stages, when either way there’s no avoiding one of the southern hemisphere giants, as Joe Schmidt pointed out, winning the pool would mean an extra day’s rest come the quarter-final.
In any case, this seems significant – in confidence and momentum, and in making a statement to themselves as well as to everyone else.
“It feels pretty nerve-wracking,” said Schmidt as the first game of his last hurrah as Ireland coach looms into view, “but there’s a degree of calm in the camp now. When you get close to these really big games, the players tend to take centre stage and start to lead what’s happening and when we see the players doing that it builds confidence for the management and the coaches.
“There will be no shortage of motivation and sometimes you’ve got to temper that a little bit, to make sure you can still be accurate, that you’re not hyper-motivated and that it doesn’t spill over into inaccurate actions. I get a pretty good feeling from the camp and it gives me a little bit of confidence but I would never be the super-confident type so we’ll see what happens in 48 hours’ time.”
With both teams utterly straining at the leash, there’ll be plenty of spice to this Celtic derby too. The Scots won’t have forgotten the camera catching Jamie Heaslip’s celebratory reaction when the draw was made. Nor Schmidt blaming the bus for the tardy start in Murrayfield in 2017.
Repeated Glasgow-Munster meetings have proved that familiarity can breed a little spite. Glasgow’s targeting of Conor Murray has been aped by Scottish players hunting Johnny Sexton, so much so that Allan Dell couldn’t resist a big shot, even if it meant Jacob Stockdale scoring untouched last February. For Ryan Wilson, no shrinking violet, and his amigos, the Irish 10 jersey will be a moving and prized target.
As they reminded us against Wales, and how timely that was, Ireland are at their best when Murray and Sexton are working off strong set-pieces and repetitive recycling.
Tomorrow’s back three of Andrew Conway, Jordan Larmour and Jacob Stockdale may have been largely forced upon, and while relatively untried, opportunity knocks for such an exciting attacking trio as well, albeit a damaged pitch and capricious weather may limit their potential.
But Ireland are at full-strength up front, with the continual influential force of nature that is James Ryan and their full battery of carriers. And under Schmidt they have long been a well-oiled machine in retaining possession. However, Ireland will not be recycling 191 rucks out of 192 as was the case against Wales, not against a backrow of John Barclay, Hamish Watson and Wilson, supplemented by two converted opensides at hooker in the starting captain Stuart McInally and Fraser Brown on the bench.
The Scots are also brilliant in transition. This is when the trickster Finn Russell and the speedster Stuart Hogg really come alive. With box kicking and grubbers likely to be tactics of choice, Russell’s devilish short-range dinks and Hogg’s laser gun will be significant weapons too.
Ireland’s backrow of Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier and CJ Stander are also supplemented by Rory Best in their ability in the jackal, and off the bench Andrew Porter and Tadhg Beirne are other fine exponents of the art.
“We know that the breakdown is going to be hotly contested,” said Schmidt. “There’s going to be some challenges for Wayne Barnes for sure and I do think that because both teams are so competitive at the breakdown that that’s going to be a real starting place to put pressure on.”
A natural born worrier, plenty else concerns him. The pace and quality of the Tommy Seymour-Hogg-Sean Maitland back three, Sam Johnson and the fit-again Duncan Taylor in midfield, and their frontrow.
“Gregor concerns me too,” he added, with a wry smile. “He’s a very astute man. He will set up a couple of things that we haven’t seen before, along with Danny Wilson, in the coaching strategy that they put together. I think across the board there’s certainly plenty that we will be concerned about and we’ll be proactively trying to solve once we get out on the pitch, and hopefully we can cause a few headaches for them as well.”
Ireland have assuredly kept their powder dry too, but it would no doubt soothe Schmidt’s nerves no end if his men were to revert to what they do best and have one of their dominant, leading-from-the-front performances.
Then again, Scotland came from 31-0 down at Twickenham when only denied a famous win in the last play of the game. They were at it again when beating France from 14-3 behind in the first of three successive warm-up wins.
However, Ireland have the game to retain possession and win the territorial battle. This has shades of the rain-sodden Guinness Pro14 in Celtic Park, when Leinster had the game management to play winning Cup rugby.
Ireland have the tools to do so here too.
IRELAND: Jordan Larmour (Leinster); Andrew Conway (Munster), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Bundee Aki (Connacht), Jacob Stockdale (Ulster); Jonathan Sexton (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster); Cian Healy (Leinster), Rory Best (Ulster, capt), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); Iain Henderson (Ulster), James Ryan (Leinster); Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), CJ Stander (Munster).
Replacements: Niall Scannell (Munster), Dave Kilcoyne (Munster), Andrew Porter (Leinster), Tadhg Beirne (Munster), Jack Conan (Leinster), Luke McGrath (Leinster), Jack Carty (Connacht), Chris Farrell (Munster).
SCOTLAND: Stuart Hogg; Tommy Seymour, Duncan Taylor, Sam Johnson, Sean Maitland; Finn Russell, Greig Laidlaw; Allan Dell, Stuart McInally (capt), Willem Nel; Grant Gilchrist, Jonny Gray; John Barclay, Hamish Watson, Ryan Wilson.
Replacements: Fraser Brown, Gordon Reid, Simon Berghan, Scott Cummings, Blade Thomson, Ali Price, Chris Harris, Darcy Graham
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant Referees: Pascal Gaüzère (France), Alexandre Ruiz (France)
TMO: Graham Hughes (England)
Overall head-to-head: Played 135. Ireland 63 wins, 5 draws, Scotland 67 wins.
Betting: 1-3 Ireland, 25-1 draw, 5-2 Scotland. Handicap odds (Scotland + 8pts) Evens Ireland, 18/1 Draw, Evens Scotland.
Forecast: Ireland to win.