Donal Lenihan looks at the recipe for opening day success in the 2020 Six Nations.
New coach. New captain. New era.
After years of unprecedented success under Joe Schmidt, diluted somewhat by shattering disappointment at the World Cup, last week’s Algarve training camp under Andy Farrell marked a new beginning.
There may be a bouncy, energetic feel around the camp but, amazingly, Farrell’s first selection as the main man features 13 of the side that delivered false hope in Japan with that opening 27-3 win over Scotland.
With Rory Best retired, Peter O’Mahony is the only Irish player to lose his starting slot from that team. That said, Andrew Conway and Jordan Larmour were only in the side due to the fact that Keith Earls and Rob Kearney were injured.
With similar niggles impacting on the availability of Earls and Ulster’s in-form full back Will Addison this time out, Conway and Larmour still have quality players breathing down their necks.
One suspects this time out, however, a performance as positive as the one they both delivered in that opening World Cup encounter will see them become fixtures for this championship.
With so many new aspects to Ireland’s truncated preparations for this tournament, not least a host of new coaches, a different training venue and regime and, hopefully, a fresh approach, it would be easy for the players to take their eye off the ball and underestimate the challenge Scotland will pose.
After all, the visitors have left Dublin with only one win over the last 20 years.
A wounded animal arrives at Lansdowne Road today.
Despite making all the usual noise in the build up to that pivotal Pool A game in Yokohama, Scotland never turned up and never recovered. Their World Cup was over before it started.
The Scottish players were already under big pressure coming into this game before Finn Russell lost the run of himself two weeks ago.
His already beleaguered teammates have been left to pick up the pieces and this group needs to deliver a performance in keeping with what the Scottish rugby public expect of them. That makes them dangerous.
Farrell needs to be mindful that, subconsciously, the Irish players might get sucked in by the relaxed, feelgood factor that surrounds the camp at present.
The biggest danger to Ireland today is themselves. Thankfully, newly installed captain Johnny Sexton would recognise the potential danger signs quicker than anyone and act accordingly.
There is no question that Ireland will face a far more controlled and disciplined Scotland in their much-changed line-up today. In contrast to Ireland, the Scots retain only five of their starting team from Yokohama.
It appears that Townsend has finally recognised his desire to play at manic pace with a slavish devotion to getting the ball into the wide channels as quickly as possible has backfired too often.
Ireland were acutely aware of the way Scotland would play in Japan and turned a potential strength of their game into a weakness.
Bundee Aki smashed everything that moved in the 10/12 channel and forced Russell into error. As defence coach, Farrell made sure that as many Irish players as possible stayed on their feet in order to stifle the Scottish running threat with suffocating line speed. It worked.
Since the World Cup, Townsend sought the counsel of former iconic national coaches Jim Telfer and Ian McGeechan and it appears both preached the same message.
There is a pressing need for a bit more pragmatism in the way Scotland seek to play. They need to tighten up and stop presenting the opposition with soft scores emanating from their mistakes.
In that respect, the absence of their most potent attacker in Russell for a breach of team protocol shifts the goalposts dramatically.
As a result Adam Hastings, who was excellent in Glasgow Warrior’s last two Champions Cup outings against Exeter and Sale, has been elevated to the starting role. With Townsend finally acknowledging that Scotland need to be smarter in terms of the way they play the game, I expect Hastings to exert far more control through the boot.
The consistent message from player interviews this week is the necessity to play in the right areas of the field. That hasn’t always been appreciated by this group of Scottish players as they often pressed they self destruct button in attempting to move ball when it simply wasn’t on.
Ironically, at a time when Scotland recognise the necessity to tighten up a bit more, it appears as if Ireland will look to attack more with ball in hand and kick less than had been the case in the previous regime.
A major change in approach under Farrell will take time however and one expects, with Sexton and Conor Murray still running affairs, that their game management skills offer Ireland an advantage over the new Scottish pairing in Ali Price and Hastings.
It will be interesting to see if they can transfer their recent form with Glasgow into the international arena.
The analysts in studio will be poring over the evidence as it unfolds, all eager to be the first to highlight the subtle tweaks in Ireland’s approach, be it in their defensive structure, attacking formations or set piece power plays.
Every coaching team likes to bring their own stamp while operating from broadly similar templates. Yet, for all the intricacies and nuances worked out behind closed doors in training, one constant remains, dating back to the amateur game.
A team is only as good as the quality of ball provided by the forwards.
The new Ireland captain said as much in his first Six Nations pre-match press conference yesterday when Sexton mused about Ireland’s attacking approach. “Sometimes you can prepare to play a brilliant expansive game but if you don’t get the right set piece and get first-phase ball or get put under pressure it can disintegrate”.
Questions have been raised about Ireland’s front five in the build-up, not in terms of their technical ability but about a lack of a ruthless edge. When Ireland dismantled Scotland up front in Yokohama only four months ago, no such questions were raised. There was no need.
As the tournament progressed however, the Irish forwards failed to really impose themselves to the same degree. With the exception of Best and O’Mahony, Ireland field the same pack today. O’Mahony will be champing at the bit when he is introduced in the final quarter but the main damage needs to be done before he arrives.
Ireland’s front five need to lay a marker in this game that sends a message for the rest of the tournament and the player that needs to lead that charge is Iain Henderson.
The towering Ulster man can count himself somewhat fortunate to start this game given the consistency Devin Toner has delivered for Leinster since suffering the disappointment of being left out of the World Cup. He has responded in the best way possible.
I have a simple philosophy in relation to Toner. If you select game-breakers like Larmour, Conway and Stockdale then you need to get the ball into their hands as often as possible. With Toner on board you are practically guaranteed not only lineout ball but quality ball from which to attack, the type of ball Sexton is talking about.
Henderson has athletic attributes that Toner can’t match but he needs to deliver on them. Likewise Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong and CJ Stander will be required to increase their overall input today and make life a little bit easier of the potentially excellent Caelan Doris on debut.
Scotland have only retained two of their starting pack from that pool game in Japan. There is a reason for that.
The Irish front five need to dispatch the new Scottish broom with the same disregard they treated their predecessors, starting with Furlong against the recalled Rory Sutherland in the scrum.
Deliver that and the Farrell era should start in the best possible manner.
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