1. Front five contest will be crucial
It says everything about how far the Scottish scrum has come that when France were granted the option of a scrum or lineout by referee Glen Jackson last Sunday, their hooker and captain Guilhem Guirado opted for the latter. When did a French side last turn down the option of a scrum?
I guarantee you the grizzled veterans I played against in French colours, such nuggety front rowers as former captains Phillippe Dintrans and Daniel Dubroca, Jean-Pierre Garuet, Pascal Ondarts and Pierre Dospital would have turned off their television sets and walked out of the room in protest.
The pressure applied by the Edinburgh trio in the front row of Alasdair Dickinson, Ross Ford and especially Willem Nel on their French counterparts forced Guirado to change tack and will have placed Ireland scrum coach Greg Feek on red alert in the build-up to today’s encounter.
The South African Nel has transformed the Scottish scrum since qualifying on residency grounds last year and his presence offers a dangerous platform for a seriously good Scottish back row to influence the outcome of this game.
Dickinson diced with the decision-making of Glen Jackson at times and could so easily have been penalised himself for penalties that were awarded in his favour. Mike Ross is a wily old character and well placed to highlight any illegality in Dickinson’s approach today.
He will need to be, because otherwise the scrum failings that proved so costly for Ireland at the outset of the championship against Wales and France could come back to haunt them again and have a serious impact on the outcome of this game.
For a side crippled with injury all season, Ireland will have little sympathy with the fact Scotland’s highly effective second row partnership provided by the Gray brothers is broken up today due to the arm injury sustained by Jonny last0 Sunday. He has had an outstanding championship and his direct replacement doesn’t offer anything like the same impact.
To win today the Irish front five will have to step up to the mark and continue the progress made against England and Italy. Donncha Ryan and Devin Toner had their best outing as a pairing against Italy but face a far sterner examination this time out. As a collective, the Irish front five need to deliver their best performance of the championship to win this one.
2. With two Scottish groundhogs on the loose, Ireland’s ball presentation must improve
That the uproar which greeted his inclusion in Scotland’s World Cup squad only a month after his arrival from Dunedin has disappeared completely says everything about the impact John Hardie has made in his six months in blue.
When former Scottish prop Peter Wright claimed Hardie’s inclusion at the expense of John Barclay and Blair Cowan “demeaned the Scottish jersey” you could see where he was coming from. That was until the Scottish public saw him play.
His performance in that incredible World Cup quarter-final against Australia when pitched against the excellent Michael Hooper forced even the most cynical of Scots to warm to the presence of a player qualified by virtue of his Scottish grandmother. Ireland have been warned of the twin threat posed by Hardie, who has excelled in the championship to date, and by the recalled Barclay on the deck which will encourage them to keep the ball off the floor where possible.
Statistically Scotland have been the most effective side in the championship in slowing down opposition ball at the breakdown, limiting both England and Wales to an average ruck speed of 4.32 seconds. Ireland’s ball presentation in contact must be spot on and will prove key if Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton are to continue the improved attacking threat witnessed against England and Italy with ball in hand.
While Josh Van Der Flier’s exclusion has been put down to the accumulation of bumps and bruises from his impressive 80 minute performances against England and Italy, Tommy O’Donnell’s greater ability to compete with Hardie and Barclay for turnovers must also have influenced Joe Schmidt’s thinking.
Jamie Heaslip’s work rate and impact has been excellent throughout the tournament and now he and CJ Stander are becoming more accustomed with the nuances of each other’s game, they should be even more effective today.
Stander, O’Donnell and Van der Flier will be fully aware by the time Ireland come together again for the tour to South Africa in June, Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony and Chris Henry could all be back in contention. Therefore, for a variety of reasons, it is imperative Stander and O’Donnell leave a lasting picture for Schmidt today by outsmarting that Scottish breakaway unit in tandem with Heaslip. It they manage to achieve that then Ireland will be well on their way.
3. Feel good factor to inspire another win. But for who?
In both Dublin and Edinburgh last weekend, the smiles were back on the faces of two sets of under-pressure squads with the rugby public in Ireland and Scotland declaring themselves happy with the positive rugby they had just witnessed against Italy and France respectively.
Of the two victories, Scotland’s was the more significant. Vern Cotter has worked every bit as assiduously as his former Clermont Auvergne coaching partner Schmidt over the past two seasons but with nowhere near the same level of success. The Scottish players and public recognised progress was being made but without results, doubts lingered.
Now chasing three consecutive Six Nations victories for the first time in 10 years, Scotland travel to Dublin not only confident they can beat Ireland but believing they will — and with good reason. What I witnessed in Murrayfield last Sunday was a very well balanced Scottish side with a strong set piece, a marauding back row and a scoring threat out wide that they haven’t had for some time.
Of more importance, they finally appear to have addressed the demons that so often beset them when within touching distance of a significant win. The fact France came back at them in the final quarter of that game and forced them to re-establish their dominance at a time when the game could have slipped away will stand to Scotland in Dublin today.
Opposite them stand an Irish side who finally seized the attacking opportunities that opened up in front of them to deliver a badly-needed nine-try bonanza. Last season, with the championship set to be decided on points differential on the last day, Ireland also emerged from the shadow of the conservative approach to stick 40 points, including four tries, on Scotland to secure back to back championship successes.
Incredibly, just one forward (Ross Ford), and three of the back line (Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour and captain Greig Laidlaw) retain their places from the side hammered in Murrayfield a year ago, and Scotland appear a far more formidable outfit this time out. Everything points to a very tight contest but the loss of Jonny Gray in the Scottish second row may be sufficient to tip the balance in Ireland’s favour.