For Ireland to achieve the twin goal of beating Scotland and retaining their Six Nations championship, they must carefully manage the twin forces that will guide that ambition. Their primary focus from the outset must be on winning the game with the eventual margin of victory becoming a factor only when the foundations for victory are established.
Despite four defeats, Scotland haven’t capitulated against any opposition this season and that includes New Zealand last November. Based on a very promising autumn series of games against the All Blacks, Argentina and Tonga, Scotland have taken a step backwards in the Six Nations and have been unable to deal with a heightened sense of expectation. There is a danger, however, that there may still be one big game in them.
The problem for Ireland now is that those expectation levels have hit rock bottom once again, so Scotland have nothing to lose and will give it everything to avoid a third wooden spoon in 11 years. They are a better side than results in this championship would suggest.
Ireland’s game management, in the opening quarter especially, needs to be spot on and they need to address the issues that blighted the opening period last weekend when Wales piled on the pressure and forced Ireland into concession of penalties.
Scotland are not Wales though and, Stuart Hogg apart, don’t have the armoury to deal with Ireland’s kicking game with the same authority shown by Leigh Halfpenny, Dan Bigger, Jamie Roberts and George North in Cardiff.
Ireland badly need to re-establish the ground rules at the breakdown and re-impose the level of physicality that enabled them to dictate proceedings from the off in the vast majority of their recent outings.
The quality of ball produced for Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton was far too slow last weekend, which contributed greatly to their inability to influence matters. If Ireland master the breakdown, the half-backs will be back in business and should establish control.
With the key tenets of their game in place, I would look to the Irish bench a little earlier than has been the case to date, and introduce the likes of Iain Henderson, Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath and Eoin Reddan to lift the tempo in search of points. That would enable Joe Schmidt to let certain players know they can afford to go flat out from the outset and empty the tank as the reinforcements will be arriving a little earlier than normal.
Ireland’s sizeable dominance of both territory and possession at the Millennium Stadium only served to highlight issues as to how that advantage was used. With just one try to show for that superiority, Schmidt must be seriously concerned about Ireland’s shortcomings in attack.
Granted, it is very difficult when teams surrender possession, as Wales did in favour of getting their defensive line in place. To hold Ireland at bay in that incredible 32-phase sequence after half-time without giving away a penalty said everything about how comfortable Wales were in those defensive duties and how narrow Ireland became in attack. A readjustment is required.
The fact that England created 17 line breaks against Scotland last Saturday offers fresh hope as Ireland go in search of a win by a decent margin. The big question is whether Ireland has the capacity to create similar line breaks, and unlike England, can they convert them into points?
The clear message from Twickenham is that Scotland’s defensive organisation is nowhere near as advanced and clinical as that of Wales. After a few phases, their defensive line tends to get fractured and separated. The Irish players must react and avail of those half gaps when they appear and not be slaves to predetermined patterns.
Ireland also need to turn Scotland and re-impose their dominant kicking game. Sexton doesn’t do two bad games in a row. The likes of Tommy Seymour, Mark Bennett, Matt Scott and Dougie Fife are nowhere as experienced or as physically imposing as the Welsh three-quarters and do not have the facility to spring a player of the quality of Scott Williams off the bench either.
If Ireland manage to put this Scottish back line on the back foot and create quick ball, holes will appear. If that happens, Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne’s power and stepping ability can create opportunities for the Irish back three. The difference is the players must have to confidence to have a go and look to offload when it’s on. The time has come to loosen the shackles and to go for broke.
Short on real star quality, Ireland need to target certain Scottish players in the manner Wales did to Ireland last week. Four players in particular are key in making Scotland tick, chief amongst them full back Stuart Hogg. He has provided their main attacking threat throughout this tournament and is especially dangerous from loose kicks and broken play.
Against France and Wales, he was sensational and provided the spark to the Scottish attacking game. Against England he excelled in his defensive role with three try-saving tackles at crucial times. Ireland cannot afford to direct any loose kicks in his direction as his pace and quick feet will invariably beat the first defender. If Ireland manage to restrict his input solely to defensive duties, then they will be doing something right.
Closer to the action, out-half Finn Russell is under pressure to perform after a number of unforced errors from him allowed Wales back into a game Scotland should have won. He has been outstanding for Glasgow Warriors in the Pro12 for over a year now but hasn’t quite managed to reproduce that impact on the international stage. However, he is a very confident individual and Ireland need to blunt that confidence early on and get him to doubt himself. If he cracks, Scotland will be in serious trouble.
Up front, 21-year-old second row Jonny Gray has been sensational, even if he has missed the comforting influence of older brother Richie who was ruled out of the rest of the tournament through injury a few weeks ago. Jonny Gray is a superb athlete and will relish the chance of going head-to-head against Paul O’Connell today. An explosive carrier and clever lineout operator, he has quickly become the heartbeat of the Scottish front five. If Devin Toner and O’Connell can blunt his influence, then Scotland will struggle.
The changes Scotland have made in their back row should add even more athleticism to their cause but it is the ever present Blair Cowan, an out and out open side, that poses the biggest threat to Irish dominance at the breakdown. Sam Warburton wreaked havoc in this area last week as Sean O’Brien is still finding his feet after his long injury induced layoff.
Born in New Zealand, Cowan was sensational against England last Saturday. He possesses all the poaching skills southern hemisphere No 7s specialise in and needs to be cleared out repeatedly in the contact area before he gets the chance to slow down the Irish recycle.
If Ireland manage to negate the influence of that quartet today, they will not only win the match but will also put themselves in a position to accumulate a decent score. If they fail to achieve that, then Scotland will prove a difficult itch to scratch and a win of narrow proportions may be all that’s on offer.