Is Paddy Jackson ready to take the giant leap to international rugby? I have my doubts but sincerely hope I am wrong. The biggest challenge facing the young Ulster man tomorrow is his ability to direct and manage a game at this level. With Ulster he is surrounded by a comfort blanket with Ruan Pienaar the primary decision maker on one shoulder and the experienced Paddy Wallace on the other.
Tomorrow he has his close friend and fellow debutant Luke Marshall and a new half back partner in Conor Murray either side of him. So much responsibility rests on his shoulders and his fledgling partnership with Murray is crucial to the outcome of this contest. Opposite him is Glasgow out-half Ruaridh Jackson who, despite winning 17 caps to date, has yet to make an impact at his level. The 10 jersey has posed a problem for the Scots for some time now and the experiment of playing starting scrum-half Greig Laidlaw there over the last 12 months hasn’t worked.
It is slightly unusual to go into a contest like this with two half-back partnerships at the infancy of their development and largely unproven. So much will depend on the quality of ball provided by the respective forwards. Once provided with the right type of possession, Murray and Jackson must show they have the capacity to dictate this game and expose the comparative frailties in their Scottish counterparts. It is unfortunate that so much of the early focus will be on a debutant 21-year-old out-half but if he can negotiate the inevitable pressure Scotland will seek to shower on him in the opening quarter, Jackson has a chance.
A lot also depend on how he copes with his first few penalty kicks at goal. Slot them and the nerves will settle, miss...
Who would have thought this would be a weakness in the Irish game, given the quality of out-halves available to Declan Kidney at the start of the tournament? Trouble is, Ireland’s loose kicking game and the problems associated with it in the championship to date have, by and large, not emanated from the boot of either Johnny Sexton or Ronan O’Gara.
The kicking issues haunting Ireland in this championship have stemmed primarily from the boot of the Irish back three and at times from Conor Murray at scrum half. There is so much more kicking undertaken in the game now with the objective of avoiding the sanctuary of the touchline either because you can’t — such as when a pass is made back into the 22 — or because of the desire to generate a lineout by kicking down the touchline and forcing the recipient into touch. In this respect, some of Ireland’s execution has been very poor and has to be addressed.
Examine England’s kick and chase game against Ireland when judiciously placed up and unders generated penalties after Rob Kearney and O’Gara were left isolated in defence and smothered by Chris Ashton or Mike Brown, whose chase was excellent. If Kearney or O’Gara released the ball, England had an automatic turnover in the Irish 22 with a potential try scoring opportunity. The lesser of the two evils was to hang on to the ball and concede the penalty. The problem with that, however, was it inevitably handed three points to England.
Laidlaw has the best place kicking stats in the tournament so Ireland had better sort out the number of kickable penalties they are conceding.
Ireland’s kicking out of hand was far too loose against Wales and England with Craig Gilroy a regular offender, presenting counter attacking opportunities for George North, Lee Halfpenny, Alex Goode, Brown and Ashton. The scary thing about a repeat of that tomorrow is that in Sean Maitland, Stuart Hogg and Tim Visser, Scotland appear to have more collective riches in their back three than any other side in the championship. Due to inadequacies in the Scottish midfield, one of the few chances they get to run with the ball is from poor opposition kicks.
For Ireland to prevail today, their kicking game requires a massive improvement from a number of players and must not become the main source of attacking ball for the most potent unit in Scotland’s armoury.
This game could well come down to whoever is in the better frame of mind to grab the contest by the scruff of the neck.
In sport, confidence is everything. Who has it coming into the game? Probably Scotland on the back of that rare Six Nations win over Italy. The question now is this: can they build on it or can Ireland force them to lose it mid-stream?
From a historic low of that defeat against Tonga last November, Scotland have recovered some ground in the championship to date even if they still appeared one dimensional in the opening game against England. By defeating an Italian side who themselves were basking in the glory of that memorable win over France in their opening Six Nations encounter, Scotland attracted more positives than would normally attach to a win over the Azzurri. It helped that they also buried their try draught by scoring four, even if the Italians handed three of those on a plate to the Scots.
Ireland will not be as obliging even though they must be lacking confidence themselves and the uncertainty created by all the injuries over the last fortnight, not to mention the media circus surrounding the omission of O’Gara in favour of Jackson, will do nothing for the younger members of the squad.
That is why a good positive start is imperative for Ireland to win. Scotland have gone through so many bad days in recent times that it shouldn’t take too much from an Irish perspective to rekindle the doubts that have crippled the mindset of so many of their teams over the past number of years.
Ireland must therefore seek to strangle their hosts early on, pin them back deep in their own half and look to build a score from early on, a la Owen Farrell in Dublin.
On the other hand, if Ireland allow the Scots to gain a foothold in the game and build from where they left off against Italy, then Declan Kidney’s side could find themselves in a hole without the composure or confidence to play themselves out of it.