Our rugby analyst Donal Lenihan focuses on the three key challenges Ireland must master today in Edinburgh
It’s a while since Ireland has had to prepare for a key test match on the back of the mental bashing that comes with a comprehensive defeat on your home patch. Many within this Irish squad have experienced a charmed life on the international stage.
Players such as James Ryan, Bundee Aki, Jordan Larmour and Jacob Stockdale have experienced more success in a single international season than some of the best players this country has produced enjoyed in a decade at the top.
From being exposed to nothing but positivity since they first donned the green jersey, now, on the back of one defeat, questions are being asked. Welcome to the real world. The first thing the squad did last Monday morning was conduct the review of the England game, identify the areas that needed to be addressed before consigning the defeat to the memory bank.
Meanwhile, in Scotland, their players were also dissecting that England game with the plus of a bonus point win over Italy in the bag. They were looking for patterns and areas that they will seek to replicate from England’s approach to fashion the type of performance that saw them defeat Ireland on their last visit to Edinburgh two years ago.
Scotland retain 10 starters from that shock 27-22 victory in the opening game of the 2017 championship — Ireland only six — and won’t be short on confidence. After all they beat France and England at Murrayfield in last season’s Six Nations campaign. That is exactly why Ireland need to rediscover the ruthless efficiency and belligerence they brought to every single aspect of their approach when outplaying New Zealand in Dublin only three months ago.
The energy and accuracy that characterised every aspect of that performance were lacking against England. Much of that was down to the fact that the visitors not only carried all those key characteristics themselves but mixed their game up smartly and made intelligent decisions based on what was unfolding in front of them.
Ireland need to hit Scotland with a ferocious intensity in the opening quarter of this game that sends an early message to their hosts. Attack their scrum, fire up the line out maul, carry hard and control territory. They need to lay down an early marker that makes the Scottish players doubt themselves. How do they go about it...?
The recent success of Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors in making the knockout phase of the Champions Cup has filled Scottish rugby with optimism. Richard Cockerill’s grunt, founded on years of success at the heart of an outstanding Leicester pack, is delivering some hard-nosed forwards capable of complementing runners such as Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour, Huw Jones and Finn Russell that national coach Gregor Townsend nurtured and developed over his time with Glasgow.
Scotland’s threats are more specific and therefore easier to target. England’s biggest attribute was the physical power and explosiveness they carried up front and in midfield. That was far more difficult to combat.
This Scottish side is very reliant on a trio of key players performing to their best. Behind the scrum, Russell and Hogg are the players that pull the strings and pose the biggest attacking threats.
Stifling their impact starts up front and the scrum offers Ireland the opportunity to not only make a statement but to demoralise the Scottish front five. Alongside Russell and Hogg, tight head prop WP Nel is Scotland’s most important player. That is why his departure with a calf injury after 25 minutes against Italy, and his absence today, is crucial. Even more so when Scotland’s back up tight head, Zander Fagerson, is also out injured.
Their starting props, Alan Dell and Simon Berghan, are not even first choice at Edinburgh. They are regularly on the bench behind Nel and Pierre Schoeman while reserve loosehead Jamie Bhatti has only started twice for Glasgow all season, losing out to yet another South African in Oli Kebble.
The only slight comfort from Scotland’s perspective is that there are increasingly fewer scrums in the game now. In that win two years ago, Fagerson started in Nel’s absence but was eaten. Problem was, there was only six scrums in the entire game and only one Scottish put in, when they are even more vulnerable. Even then, Ireland were awarded three scrum penalties. However, with strong winds forecast for Edinburgh today, we could see more handling errors, hence more scrums.
The challenge for Ireland is to manufacture scrums in the right area of the field — within 10 metres of the Scottish line. That will create havoc in their defensive organisation, especially on an Irish put in, as their props will be roaring at the wing forwards to stay down and support them while the inside backs will be pressurising them to close off the inside defensive channels.
Ireland’s scrum must force Scotland into making difficult decisions.
It will help matters enormously if the Irish forwards manage to address the issues that impacted the overall team performance last week by getting their half-backs back on the front foot. So much flows from that in terms of dominating territory with the ball and being aggressive in defence when the opposition have it.
It will also help in dealing with the attacking threat Scotland pose in Russell and Hogg. Even off limited possession, those two are the catalyst for everything Scotland do in attack, especially from broken play.
Where Ireland are more structured, Scotland look to play a high tempo, heads-up game with Russell given a licence to react to what’s unfolding in front of him. He is very good at that as evidenced in his role in setting up three of Scotland’s tries last weekend, his cross-field kick for Blair Kinghorn’s opening try a case in point.
Ireland must seek to break the chain between him and scrum-half Greig Laidlaw. Ireland’s 2017 Lions will be mindful that Laidlaw was never a contender for the test squad ahead of Murray and Rhys Webb on that tour, due primarily to a ponderous service in games he started.. As a captain and place-kicker, he is a key figure for the Scots but he can be got at.
Putting pressure on him will buy Sean O’Brien a vital extra second in closing the space on Russell which has a knock on effect on the line speed the massive Irish centre pairing of Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell can apply in midfield.
Hogg is a brilliant counter attacker with a blistering turn of pace and a punishing sidestep. He has a history of playing well, and scoring, against Ireland and will cause untold damage if given time and space. Ireland are well aware, after the travails of last weekend, of just how difficult it is to operate without those two precious commodities.
Ireland need to become the aggressors from the outset today and remind their hosts why they have claimed so many prized scalps over the last three years. A dominant scrum will be a good starting point along with rediscovering a ruthless edge at the breakdown and in generating turnovers.
Key players like Peter O’Mahony, Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, Conor Murray, and Johnny Sexton were stung by what happened against England.
There is bound to be a reaction and Scotland are in the firing line.