For the first time in years, Ireland have the capacity to use their scrum as a point of difference. While the new engagement sequence has somewhat negated the bulk on offer from the big tightheads like Mike Ross and Adam Jones, it has played into the hands of the more dynamic and explosive looseheads. This has enabled Cian Healy to take his game to another level. He has been exceptional since his miraculous return from an ankle injury and in the absence of Euan Murray tomorrow has the ability to do a serious job on Scotland tighthead Moray Low.
If he gets an edge there it will also make life easier for Ross against Ryan Grant, who hasn’t kicked on after gaining valuable experience with the Lions last summer. If Ireland can manufacture a nudge in the scrum and Ross offers a good angle on the right hand side, it will afford Jamie Heaslip a massive advantage when picking off the base. In the absence of Seán O’Brien, Heaslip will have to revert to the carrying role of his early days in a green jersey. The scrum offers Ireland a good primary source of quick, go forward ball with Heaslip’s dynamism off the base the perfect starting point. If Ireland establish a decent platform here it also affords Heaslip the chance of holding at the base for a second drive in order to suck the life out of what looks a lumbering Scottish front five. This massive Scottish pack will be expecting to edge the scrum battle but Ireland have the ability to outplay them in this vital sector despite some question marks hanging over Devin Toner’s scrummaging power from second row. With good options available to Joe Schmidt off the bench in Jack McGrath and Martin Moore, who looks set to gain his first cap, Ireland should be able to keep the scrum power on for the 80 minutes. It has been a long time since an Irish coach has enjoyed that luxury.
Joe Schmidt made his first big selection call of the championship by opting for Luke Marshall to start over the more experienced Gordon D’Arcy, no doubt with one eye on the 2015 World Cup. After D’Arcy’s heroics against New Zealand, the Wexford man is entitled to feel a little aggrieved. Yet between them Johnny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll and Marshall have still amassed a total of 171 caps (241 had D’Arcy been selected) coming into this contest.
Sexton’s form may have been subjected to adverse scrutiny in a misfiring Racing Metro side but I expect to see him liberated in the company of so many familiar faces.
The contrast with their opposite numbers Duncan Weir, Alex Dunbar and Duncan Taylor could not be more striking with a mere 17 caps between them. In addition the centre pairing of Dunbar and Taylor are starting a Six Nations game for the first time.
Marshall made a striking debut in the corresponding match last season when a number of early line breaks announced his arrival as a key component of Ireland’s future. Ireland hold a big advantage in the sector and with Schmidt at the helm surely the type of strike moves from set plays that characterised his time at Leinster, with so many of the same key personnel involved, will feature prominently. If Ireland manage to win any semblance of quick ball then Sexton, Marshall and O’Driscoll have the skill set and know how to open up this Scottish midfield defence and create chances for the back three. Rob Kearney implied during the week that he now has a licence to counter attack from Schmidt whereas he felt pressure to kick more for territory last year. That augurs well and if his brother Dave and Andrew Trimble can quickly get on the same wavelength, operating as trail runners off the two centres and offering support to the full back, Ireland should profit.
While the Scottish back three of Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland and Sean Lamont offer the visitors a potent mix of power and pace in attack, Schmidt’s track record as an attack coach suggests Ireland should have enough armoury in their box of tricks to cause them all kinds of trouble in defence. It will be very interesting to see if he can reproduce Leinster’s attacking nous in a green jersey and starting out against such a callow Scottish midfield trio offers Ireland a distinct advantage that won’t be anywhere near as pronounced when Wales arrive in Dublin next week. That must be exploited.
Despite the loss to injury of the unfortunate Luke Fitzgerald, the perceived lack of match fitness of Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy coupled with the unavailability of Tommy Bowe and Keith Earls, Ireland still possess far more of a cutting edge across their three quarter line than Scotland. The key to exploiting that advantage lies with the ability to generate quick ball.
The vast majority of this Scottish side have been playing in appalling conditions in either Murrayfield or Scotstoun since November and as a result have become used to a more static, set piece game. The surface at the Aviva Stadium is now one of the best in the tournament with Murrayfield and the Stade de France not only appalling but dangerous to the health and safety of the players. Therefore if Ireland can dictate the tempo of this contest from early on and look to tap and go off penalties, I think they are capable of running the visitors off their feet. Much will depend on the weather conditions and on the competitiveness of Ireland at the breakdown. Chris Henry was exceptional in Ulster’s recent win over Leicester and needs to bring that form into today’s contest. Ireland need to reproduce the same intensity at the breakdown that they showed against New Zealand but it may take at least one test to reproduce that level which could be well timed for Wales next weekend. Ireland have the skill set, quality in the spine of the team and creativity across the back line to take this Scottish side out of their comfort zone. If they achieve that then they have the quality to win with a bit to spare. If they get sucked into a slugfest, then Scotland will still be alive entering the final quarter. Ireland must not allow that to happen.