That Ireland could be crowned Six Nations champions by 7pm this evening will not enter the thinking of anyone inside Joe Schmidt’s bubble as kick-off approaches this afternoon, writes Simon Lewis.
A bonus-point win in Dublin over Scotland followed by a favour from the French in Paris to deny any English extras would be one of the ways to secure a third championship title in five seasons on Schmidt’s watch as head coach but it will not concern the man himself nor the players he consistently drives to be the best they can be.
Certainly not captain Rory Best. To get from point A to point C, you have to visit and then successfully negotiate point B and that, right now, is the Scots at 2:15pm. Forget the what ifs at Stade de France, concentrate on delivering your side of the bargain.
That will be the message to any player who has dared to dream this week, an activity Schmidt on Thursday classed as “not productive time” in the business of winning the next game and reinforced yesterday by Best.
“I think there’s pressures within the environment. You know and you’ve got trust…for those who maybe don’t have the experience you try to impart a little bit of that – when you look beyond a game, it doesn’t matter what game it is, there’s a chance, and look it may not, but there’s a chance it may affect your performance,” the captain said after his team came through their light captain’s run training session at the Aviva Stadium yesterday.
“Ultimately, everyone wants to be playing in the big games and this is a big game and what you don’t want to do in a big game is allow the fact you’re looking ahead to affect your performance and risk a selection issue for you down the line.
Having reached the top of the Six Nations table with wins over France, Italy and Wales, Ireland are over the hump in this championship, the last remaining team without a loss but with two more victories to achieve if Schmidt is to emulate Declan Kidney and complete a Grand Slam. He is right not to dream of a final day showdown with England at Twickenham when opposition as dangerous as Scotland are next on the schedule.
Head coach Gregor Townsend even staged their captain’s run training session in Edinburgh yesterday lunchtime before taking off for Dublin.
That meant the Scots had a mere walk through on the Lansdowne Road pitch at 4pm yesterday, a sign either that given their shocking away form in this competition they are so averse to success on their travels or they arrive in the Irish capital locked, loaded and brimming with confidence following a first win over England in a decade last time out.
Victory over Ireland at Murrayfield 13 months ago is another cause for Scottish optimism, along with the feelgood factor instilled by new head coach Gregor Townsend, yet it overlooks determination in the home camp to make amends for their profligacy in leaking three first-half tries. Lightning will not strike Ireland twice and a repeat of the way they sleep-walked into Edinburgh on last year’s opening day and allowed Stuart Hogg and company to run riot in that opening 25 minutes is simply unthinkable.
Nor do Scotland have form when it comes to backing up vibrant performances. Their fast start to last year’s campaign, the final go-around for Vern Cotter, was followed by defeat in Paris, their round-three win at home to Wales led to a shellacking by England at Twickenham.
Under Townsend, it has been much the same. Last summer’s famous tour win over Australia in Sydney came seven days before a humiliating defeat to Fiji in Suva while for all the credit gained by a narrow November loss to New Zealand and a stunning 53-24 win over the Wallabies, it was back to square one the minute they left home and opened up this current championship with a woeful loss in Cardiff.
Clearly Scotland can play and often dazzle, as they did against England in that three-try first half a fortnight ago when the backline led by Finn Russell fizzed off the ball provided by a ferocious breakdown effort from the forwards. Yet they can just as evidently struggle while Ireland tend to learn their lessons and move on.
The mistakes of last year at Murrayfield have been festering for more than a year now and a lineout, now much improved and with a fit-again Peter O’Mahony providing plenty of variety from the back row, will not be out-thought as it was then.
There are still areas for improvement as Best admitted yesterday, not least the defensive wounds inflicted in the wide channels by Italy and Wales in the most recent outings and which were first cut by the Scots in 2017.
The difference this time around is that they have been exposed late in games rather than catching Ireland cold, both the Italians and the Welsh running the home side ragged in the closing quarter in recent weeks.
Yet Schmidt has been able to deal a much stronger hand this year, having had to make do without an injured Johnny Sexton in Scotland and he is confident he has picked a bench to face Scotland that is perfectly capable of finishing the job.
Front row replacements Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath and Andrew Porter all pack a punch when deployed for the final 20 minutes, as will fellow forwards Iain Henderson and Jordi Murphy, while in backline cover, fly-half Joey Carbery and outside back Jordan Larmour have the creativity to unlock the Scots at the business end of the game.
Schmidt has starters focused on making a quick impression out of the blocks and instead of limping towards full-time, as Ireland also did at Murrayfield last year, a bench to make an impact.
Scotland may have the weapons but Ireland, this time around, look to have the answers.