Don’t believe the hype. Scotland have been talked up these past two weeks, not least by themselves but also by their Irish opponents, writes Simon Lewis of the Irish Examiner.
Yet while there are convincing arguments for a rejuvenated, powerful, all-singing and Scottish dancing team assembled by Vern Cotter to finally come good in the RBS 6 Nations, there is also compelling evidence that Ireland have no small amount of momentum themselves and a loss here at Murrayfield this afternoon would represent a serious setback for head coach Joe Schmidt.
No-one expected Schmidt to declare his world number four-ranked side red-hot favourites for this 2017 Championship opener, bonus points and all, despite the seriously good form and wonderful intensity they showed during their historic November series.
Add in two convincing coaching victories over his good friend Cotter in the most recent Six Nations and the fact Scotland has failed to win their last 10 opening matches in this tournament and it is easy to understand why the bookmakers have made Ireland odds-on for success this afternoon.
Schmidt, though, is taking nothing for granted and is happy to add to the Scottish feelgood factor, convinced that they have to start getting their act together sooner or later.
“I’m not sure how hyped up they’ve been.
I know last time we went there looking for a win and hoping for a differential they hadn’t won a game in the championship and yet their points differential was maybe 22 or 24 points.
So across four games they’d had just about four losing bonus points or certainly three losing bonus points.
“The fact is that you can’t always be the unlucky loser. The incremental improvements they’ve made, I do think the last time we played up there, they had to make a few changes. They didn’t have their starting back three and were missing two of their wingers at the time. They were missing a few guys.
“I think this is close to full-strength. Willem Nel is obviously a guy they’re missing and he’s made it his own, that tight-head spot.
But gee, you can’t help but be impressed with the young Zander Fagerson and the way he has really grown into the role.
It’s probably just this year, I think, they genuinely are better balanced than I’ve ever seen them.
“To be honest, fair play to Vern Cotter, I think he’s done a really good job with them. How unlucky can you be that the last decision of a game doesn’t go your way and you’re not in a World Cup semi-final? Because that’s how close they were. That’s incredibly unlucky. It wasn’t for want of ability or effort, because they scored some incredibly positive, high pressure tries that day.
“So I don’t think anyone takes them easy, because they are so tough, and last year what was the score in the England game right at the start of the Six Nations? An England team that haven’t been beaten since then. They won 15-9 and Finn Russell kicked ahead when I think if he had linked with Stuart Hogg potentially (there was a try). Stuart Hogg doesn’t get caught from behind too often and certainly didn’t against us last year.”
Yet the Irish head coach is perhaps being a touch disingenuous. The highlight reel for fly-half Russell may be impressive but there are just as many bloopers, not least the one Schmidt cited himself.
Much has been made of Glasgow’s excellence in securing a first Champions Cup quarter-final qualification, and Warriors players form the rump of Cotter’s side, yet they finished second in their pool behind a Munster side that has beaten them three times already this season, including twice at Scotstoun.
The most recent win for Rassie Erasmus’s side in round five of pool play was a telling example of Russell’s weakness, his failure to apply the killer blow with a drop-goal attempt to overturn the visitors’ lead.
And while much has been made of the absence through injury from the Ireland line-up of fly-half Johnny Sexton, described by Schmidt as the dominant player in last year’s championship, it is difficult to imagine his replacement, Paddy Jackson, not planting his foot on the jugular.
Jackson is no greenhorn. His entry into Test rugby came perhaps too soon in a dismal 2013 campaign that saw him debut in a defeat at Murrayfield, yet his lengthy apprenticeship with Ulster and in the Ireland camp is finally bearing dividends, steering Ireland to a first ever Test win in South Africa and conducting a thrilling victory over the Wallabies last time out.
Ireland supporters should not fear any weakness in their number 10, his provincial and Test captain Rory Best said yesterday.
“With Jacko especially, you could write a book on some of the setbacks he’s had but for me, that’s the sign of a good player,” Best said.
“You learn there and then what happened, and how you can get better, and move on.
“You see players, maybe not under the microscope like he’s been, making those sort of mistakes in provincial games and then you never see them again.
That’s because they don’t have the character. Guys like Jacko, and all the great and the good that have played for Ireland, everyone has had a game they’d like to forget but they’ve all pushed on and learned from it.
I’ve really seen the growth in Jacko since 2013, it’s a long time ago now, especially in rugby terms.”
For sure, Scotland are much improved but they are not world beaters yet and their high points are still at the level of glorious near-misses.
Much has been made of them taking a leaf out of Glasgow’s playbook and targeting scrum-half Conor Murray the way he was at Scotstoun yet there is no way Ireland’s number nine will not receive the proper security blanket from his forwards this time around and as long as Ireland do not squander possession, gifting the ball the way they did when Jackson made his debut four long years ago, this should be a fourth successive Six Nations victory over the Scots.