Atonement time, but Ireland wary of Scottish tricks

The winds of Storm Erik tore through Edinburgh last night as the perfect prelude to an afternoon at Murrayfield today that Ireland supporters are hoping will bring a whirlwind of a different kind.

A week on from being blown off course by the humbling experience of a home defeat to a wrathful England side, Ireland are now tasked with channelling their own anger into a much improved, more intense performance of greater accuracy and sharper decision-making against Scotland in order to get their Guinness Six Nations title defence back on the right path.

There is bound to be anger in the Irish bellies as Rory Best’s side bid to banish the demons of seven days ago. Andy Farrell, current defence coach and head coach in waiting, believes the squad have turned a corner in their efforts to atone for just a second defeat since March 2017.

“It’s about our processes and making sure that we learn from the experience last week,” Farrell said during an in-house interview on the IRFU website. “You can take a loss… if you learn from it and push on and progress over the coming months.

“We’ve had a good week. We’ve learned a lot, a bit of heartache along the way at the start obviously, and we’re here to put a good performance on the pitch on Saturday.”

Storm Erik may still have a part to play with high winds expected to continue past the 2:15 kick-off time and Farrell added: “It’s certainly expected to be windy, gales, you come to expect it when you come to Murrayfield, quite an open-type stadium with the stands a little bit further back on one side. So it does tend to swirl here a little bit.

“You incorporate it into the plan along the way. These guys are very experienced in playing conditions like this, so it won’t be a problem.”

It may alter the approach of the two sides but whatever the weather, captain Best has demanded an increase in Ireland intensity after a lacklustre performance in that 32-20 defeat to England at Aviva Stadium that began with a flurry from the visitors and an alarming lack of concentration that led to the first try from Johnny May just 90 seconds into the contest.

“I think we need to start well and we need to cut out the mistakes,” Best said. “When you look at that first (attacking) set that England had, they got ahead of us at the lineout, they then got gainline and just when we got control again we made one more mistake and they scored.

“We have got to understand at this level it is about putting moment after moment after moment and just when you think you are doing well, that is when you are at your most dangerous because that is when you relax and as soon as you relax, that is when you are in trouble.

“That gives them massive belief and it kind of just took that hesitancy that we had in the warm-up and it just became a little bit more than that.”

As clearly as Ireland need to put in a vastly improved performance today, the threat Gregor Townsend’s side pose on home turf with Flower of Scotland ringing in their ears cannot be underestimated.

It has not been forgotten how easily the Scots caught Ireland napping at Murrayfield two years ago on the opening weekend and left Joe Schmidt’s side playing catch-up for the rest of the championship, the position Ireland are back in this time around. And by general consensus, the current Scotland team are a much better outfit than the one which raced into a 21-8 half-time lead and scored a surprise 27-22 victory in 2017.

They opened their account with a 33-20 home win over Italy last Saturday and return to Murrayfield full of optimism that this can finally be the season in which strong one-off performances can be transformed into consistent success. Listen to anyone in the Ireland camp this week and the praise for Scotland has been deafening.

Cian Healy described their “serious brand of rugby”, based “on a lot power up front, a lot of poachers and an awful lot of speed out back”; of “lightning speed throughout and good ball players and poachers everywhere” before saying this was the best Scotland side he had faced in almost a decade of playing Test rugby.

“The last couple of years they’ve started coming out with trick plays and they’re not just trick plays, they’re catching people. It’s not just a trick play for the sake of it, they’re catching people and scoring.

“They’re demanding creative thinking in defence as well. We have to be thinking what might they be thinking which I suppose is what we want people to think about us.

“It’s a nice way to play rugby and it’s just about us putting pressure on that and trying to shut off their ability to think like that.”

Farrell agreed, saying yesterday: “They’re playing some brilliant rugby at the minute. Over the last couple of years they’ve really expanded their game. They play a wide, expansive game with a lot of tricks up their sleeve. Their attacking kicking game is very good and they’re a forceful team up front as well so we’re expecting a bit of everything.

“They’re a team that’s high in confidence at this moment in time and they beat us here two years ago so it’s a massive old game.”

Massive indeed. For the number two side in the world, as Ireland remain, this game represents a real acid test of their status. The loss to England threatens to destroy all the momentum built up during a glorious 2018. Perform badly for a second week in a row, and it casts a serious shadow, not just over the rest of this Six Nations campaign but this autumn’s World Cup bid in Japan, when their opening pool game comes against today’s opponents in Yokohama on September 22.

Get it right, however, and bounce back with a bang, and as Schmidt said this week: “It will give us a benchmark and extra hunger for that first-round game in Pool A.

“Whatever way it works out result-wise, we can cope and we can use it for what we’ve got to do in the future.

“Performance-wise, we have to be better.”

It is difficult to imagine Ireland playing as badly as they did last week for a second game in a row, but against a Scotland side blessed with threats throughout their team, it is going to need something several notches better. We know the heights Ireland are capable of reaching, but today will reveal whether they can summon it on demand when they need it most.

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