IN many ways, it’s been a strange championship for Ireland, with questions of an entirely different nature asked of the team in the last two games. If playing against 13 men from the second quarter onwards spooked Ireland somewhat against Italy, seeing England permanently reduced to 14 men 82 seconds into last weekend's clash in Twickenham transformed the home team into men possessed.
Despite taking time to adapt to both scenarios, Ireland delivered in circumstances that will not only help the growth of this side but could yet shape their future. Today Ireland will focus on all the things within their control against a Scottish side that has, once again, flattered to deceive.
Sitting two points behind France in the championship table, Ireland lead the way in terms of most tries and points scored along with also conceding the least amount of points and tries in the tournament. That is a lethal cocktail, even if slightly distorted by the magnitude of the win over 13-man Italy.
Yet Johnny Sexton leads a team into action today, keen to address a number of issues that left a bit of a sour taste after the Twickenham triumph, despite the record nature of the bonus point win. That is no bad way to approach the last game in the championship.
First on the agenda is the scrum. For the first time in years, the Irish public will watch the first scrum engagement of the game with a little nervousness. Is this Scottish front row capable of stressing their Irish counterparts to the same degree England managed?. Can Ireland cope with the loss of Andrew Porter and Ronan Kelleher today? The answer on both counts is yes.
Ireland need to kill off any thoughts entertained by the Scottish front five early on of imposing any scrum pressure and consign the issues surrounding the questionable means England used to distress the Irish scrum last time out to history.
Resolving the issue with the scrum will immediately impact another problem area last weekend, namely discipline. Ireland conceded 15 penalties in Twickenham, six of those directly related to the scrum. Address that primary issue alone and the penalty count should shrink to single figures which is far more manageable.
The most exciting thing about how Ireland played against England was the way they manipulated the English defence. Time and again, with a succession of clever decisions made under pressure on the gain line, Ireland created space in the wide five metre channels. James Lowe’s opening try was a perfect example of that. Ireland created an overlap and executed perfectly.
If Ireland can achieve a better balance between their kicking and running game, they have the capacity to create issues for Gregor Townsend’s team in a number of area. The question then, with a rookie out half in Blair Kinghorn leading the way, will Scotland be able to cope?
Some day soon, Ireland will hit the right balance with their ever-evolving off-loading game and someone, other than the beleaguered Italians, will be on the receiving end. Right now, Ireland continue to push the boundaries, at times looking for the unlikely offload that will result in a certain try.
It happened on numerous occasions against England as the Irish player in possession sought to keep the ball alive at all costs. In almost all of those instances, it’s was a forward in the van. Tadhg Berne, Caelan Doris and Tadhg Furlong were all guilty of overstretching the mark. They will learn from the experience. If they managed to stay patient and retain the ball through one or two more phases, chances are Ireland would have scored again.
The statistic’s on Ireland’s attack in Twickenham are off the charts, even allowing for the extra man. Ireland beat 26 defenders, made 8 clean line breaks, 192 passes and 11 off loads, accumulating 555 metres made compared to 214 from England.
Is it any wonder Ireland outscored England by four tries to nil. Yet, the performance was still pockmarked by a plethora of handling errors, knock on’s and indiscipline. Imagine when they get it right.
Ireland’s attacking shape, skill set and understanding of what it is they are trying to achieve has progressed massively over the last year. The fact that there is still so much scope for improvement, a year out from a World Cup, will only encourage the players to work even harder to achieve that goal.
Ireland are performing the way Townsend has sought to get all his teams playing since becoming a head coach. The closest he has got to achieving that was with his Glasgow Warriors side that won the Guinness Pro12 in 2015, dismantling Munster 31-13 in the final in Belfast with a magnificent brand of attacking rugby.
This Scottish side, with a backline that has featured five players in this championship that saw game time for the Lions in the test series against South Africa last summer, has only scored 10 tries - Ireland sit highest in the table with 20 against the same four opponents - in the championship to date.
Of more concern for Townsend is the fact that the meanest defence in the tournament over the last two campaigns has already conceded 11 tries, including three against Italy last time out, the highest of any side outside of the Italians. This Scottish side has lost its way a bit since their opening day win over England. Confidence has been affected and omitting the mercurial Finn Russell, who admittedly has had a disappointing campaign, represents a gamble on Townsend’s behalf.
The old Saw Doctors song “To win just once” springs to mind when you think of Scotland’s travails against Ireland. Their last victory in Dublin was back in 2010, a 20-23 win courtesy of a Dan Parks penalty at the death.
That game was hosted at Croke Park meaning Scotland haven’t beaten Ireland at Lansdowne Road since the harrowing 16-17 defeat in 1998 that forced Brian Ashton to resign as Irish coach leading to the relatively unknown 34 year old New Zealander in Warren Gatland being parachuted into the job, signaling a new era in Irish rugby.
Having made great strides under defence coach Steve Tandy in recent seasons, Scotland focused on improving their impact in attack only to lose focus on the defensive gains made since the former Ospreys coach came on board. No wonder the Scottish public find them such a frustrating team to follow. To win today, Scotland need to find a way to stifle Ireland at the breakdown and slow their attack while, at the same time, offering more with ball in hand.
Selecting two openside flankers in Rory Darge and Hamish Watson is designed specifically to frustrate Ireland at the ruck and slow down the rapid recycling that has enabled Ireland’s attack to flow.
Ireland will need to focus their attention in cleaning out those two at the breakdown before they get the chance to clamp on the ball. Achieve that and Ireland will be on the road to another victory. All they can do then is sit back and watch how things unfold at the Stade de France.
The target for Ireland is clear. A trophy presentation on home soil for the first time since 2004 would be most welcome. As for the dream day, how about two trophy presentations within three hours of each other. That is exactly what will happen, on the assumption that Ireland have already secured the Triple Crown, if England manage to turn the French over in Paris.
A victory for England would mean that Sexton and his men will be summoned to the podium once again to accept the championship trophy. As a climax to a fascinating tournament from an Irish perspective, it doesn’t get much better than that.
The target today? Deliver on the areas within your own control. On the assumption that this ever-improving French side should have too much to offer over what amounts to a very inexperienced England back line, anything else would amount to a welcome bonus for Ireland.