What is it that sets Joe Schmidt apart from his peers in the Six Nations and why does it present Ireland with an edge heading into this opening weekend of fixtures?
There are a number of areas but, for me, what consistently stands out is his ability to have his side play at maximum intensity levels from the very outset of the campaigns he is involved in.
Take that opening test in South Africa last June. Ireland hadn’t been together for a few months, played for 60 minutes with 14 men and ten minutes with 13 when a yellow card saw Robbie Henshaw join CJ Stander on the sideline, yet still managed to force the Springboks into error.
Even more impressive was the fact that, despite not having played together for four months, Ireland matched and even surpassed New Zealand for intensity in the opening half in Chicago despite the fact that the All Blacks had just finished the Rugby Championship and were more in tune with the tempo of international rugby.
Wales are notoriously slow out of the blocks are better by the end of an Autumn series or a Six Nations championship than they are at the outset. Schmidt doesn’t wait for that to happen. He works players so hard in the weeks prior to the game that they always appear perfectly primed for battle.
During the week, Rob Kearney commented that “last week’s training went really well. We got the intensity there from the off.” Eddie Jones appears to be chasing this also even if it incurred the wrath of the English clubs.
He pushes his players in training at an intensity level 10% higher than that of an international game. After one such session in the buildup to the Autumn international, three of his players suffered serious injuries and the clubs went ballistic.
Scotland like to play a multi phase, high tempo rugby, but Ireland will seek to take them out of their comfort zone in the opening half today. Controlling possession is the key to that and that’s where Ireland’s set piece and continuity game will prove crucial.
So much is pre-ordained in rugby now, with players knowing several phases in advance where they are expected to be and what is going to happen, the key part comes down to securing good quality ball in the first place. If the scrum or line out struggles, it becomes impossible to implement the game plan. Just look back to Chicago and the fall out for the best side in the game, New Zealand, when their lineout fell apart.
Forced to start without first choice locks Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock, the All Blacks failed to make any inroads on the quality of ball produced by the Irish pack and couldn’t secure enough usable line out possession themselves to launch the pace and power they had across their back line. Ireland smelled a weakness in advance and made New Zealand pay.
Both Ireland and Scotland have potential weaknesses in the make up of their set piece but it remains to be seen whether or not they can be exploited to the extreme that Ireland managed in Soldier Field.
Ireland’s dynamic back row of Jamie Heaslip, CJ Stander and Sean O’Brien carry so many positives that it appears churlish to question it them in any way. The absence of Peter O’Mahony, however, leaves the tail of the Irish lineout vulnerable. Scotland have two natural leapers in Josh Strauss and Ryan Wilson which offers them an advantage. That is a worry as ball off the tail of the line out is the most valuable from an attacking sense and offers all kinds of possibilities.
O’Mahony’s ability to pilfer opposition ball when stationed at the front of the Irish line out also enables one of the Irish second rows to man the tail thus impacting on the Scottish supply there.
Neither Stander or O’Brien offer this facility, a factor that Scotland will seek to exploit.
In the absence of their injured tight head prop WP Nel, Scotland’s potential achilles heel is the scrum. His replacement Zander Fagerson is a bit of a freak of nature to be able to compete at this level having just celebrated his 21st birthday last month.
Problem is, he struggled at times against a very ordinary Australian front row last November and Jack McGrath needs to go after him on every Scottish put in, especially as Fagerson’s replacement, Simon Berghan, is uncapped and unproven.
On the Scottish loose head side is the equally inexperienced Allen Dell with just 3 caps behind him. He only starts due to an injury to Alasdair Dickinson. There is nothing more deflating for any side than to see their scrum under pressure and struggling to cope, especially at home. Ireland have a big opportunity to make that happen.
One can understand why the Scottish camp breathed a collective sigh of relief when news broke on Tuesday that Johnny Sexton was ruled out. The Leinster man has broken Scottish hearts on more than one occasion and his partnership with Conor Murray is the best in the championship.
Having struggled at half-back for long periods, the consistency now being delivered by Finn Russell in a Glasgow shirt offers fresh hope he can finally transfer his excellent club form onto the international stage alongside captain Greig Laidlaw.
However Paddy Jackson has started five of Ireland’s last seven internationals, three against South Africa away from home and against Canada and Australia last November. He is a far more assured figure now than the one thrown in at the deep end by Declan Kidney in Edinburgh four years ago.
His job today, along with Murray, is to direct traffic and keep Ireland on the front foot. That pairing must control the geography of where this battle is contested. This Scottish side has a tendency to play laterally and if pinned in their own half of the field, expend far too much energy trying to get out of it.
Murray’s tactical awareness with the boot is a huge plus, hence the highly published targeting of him by Glasgow recently. It will be interesting to see how French referee Romain Poite will handle that one, especially as the main perpetrator of those assaults on Murray’s standing leg, Josh Strauss, is on board for Scotland today.
I expect this Irish pack, augmented by some exciting impact off the bench, to provide better ball in terms of quantity and quality. That should enable Murray and Jackson to gain a foothold in the Scottish 22. Once there, Ireland normally come away with points.
The Irish back row should also target Russell and put him under the type of pressure Munster did when dominating Glasgow in that 38-17 Champions Cup win in Thomond Park last October. Russell had a bit of a nightmare that day and was hauled ashore with 20 minutes to go. If Ireland succeed in rattling him to the same extent, they will be well on their way to victory.