1 THE SECOND ROW
If a Lions Test second row pairing was to be selected on the basis of the opening three games of the Six Nations, it would feature Paul O’Connell along with Scotland’s young dynamo Richie Gray. O’Connell has been outstanding for Ireland in the championship while, as a combination, Gray, and his equally monstrous partner Jim Hamilton, have been making a nuisance of themselves, especially when it comes to contesting lineout ball. At 6’9” and 6’8” respectively, they form a very competitive force in the air.
Ireland’s lineout, even with O’Connell on board, has faltered somewhat of late and will be put under even more pressure today. Donnacha Ryan has assumed the responsibility for running the lineout, a big ask for someone starting a Six Nations game for the first time.
With O’Connell and forwards coach Gert Smal both out of the equation, much pressure will fall on the senior figure in the Irish pack Donncha O’Callaghan to lead the charge. He will have his hands full in challenging the threat of Hamilton and Gray out of touch and at the breakdown.
Scotland boast an unblemished record of 33 lineouts without loss in the championship and in addition have stolen opposition ball on five occasions. Gray has also proved a prodigious carrier and some of his offloads have been sensational for such a big man.
He also has a very good turn of pace. On the other hand, Hamilton tends to play the role of enforcer and likes to bully people in the contact area.
O’Callaghan and Ryan need to meet the challenge posed by the twin Scottish towers head on and not let them dictate the ground rules up front.
With O’Connell absent, one of the Munster men needs to step into the breach and lead the charge. Ryan has waited a long time for his chance to start in a big game and after an excellent Heineken Cup campaign, his time is now. If O’Callaghan and Ryan can shade this battle, Ireland are on the road to victory.
2 THE BACK ROW
Individually Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip and especially Stephen Ferris have all enjoyed standout moments but it is difficult to escape the fact that Heaslip and O’Brien have been marginalised over the last few weeks, without a natural open side to play off.
O’Brien has been suffering from a debilitating hip injury that has curtailed his training and while his withdrawal on Thursday was due to a skin infection, I wonder if that hip problem was a contributory factor.
While Peter O’Mahony, promoted off the bench today due to O’Brien’s injury, has played most of his rugby at either No 8 or 6, he has the rugby intellect to make a real impact as an open side.
His performances certainly didn’t suffer there when offered Niall Ronan’s jersey at the tail end of Munster’s Heineken Cup campaign but international rugby will ask more questions. O’Mahony has a very good understanding of his new role and at least has had some game time there against Italy and France.
His challenge today stems primarily from the fact Scotland’s back row has two natural open sides in Ross Rennie, who was man of the match against France and John Barkley, the only survivor from the ‘Killer Bs’ who reigned supreme when Scotland won in Croke Park two years ago. In addition, Andy Robinson has discovered a real gem in Zimbabwean-born No 8 David Denton who has really made a name for himself.
Rennie and Barkley were very impressive on the deck against the French and because of concerns over the effectiveness of Ireland’s choke tackle, there is every chance that Scotland will look to go to ground early and ruck beyond the ball, a traditional strength of their game. Scotland have enjoyed more possession in this Six Nations than any other side but have not been able to capitalise on it. One of the primary reasons for securing and retaining that possession has been due to the collective work rate of their back row.
On the Irish side, Ferris has been magnificent throughout but the Irish back row will have to work more effectively as a unit to make a sustained nuisance of themselves at the breakdown. Scotland kick very little ball, preferring to go through multiple phases.
This presents a great opportunity for O’Mahony and Heaslip to chase turnovers. If the Irish trio edge this battle then their more effective three quarter line will reap the benefits.
3 ROB KEARNEY V STUART HOGG
Kearney, who doesn’t turn 26 until the end of this month, is still too young to bill this as the master against the young pretender but such has been the Leinster man’s influence on Ireland’s performances since returning from injury at the World Cup, that he has become Ireland’s most potent strike runner. He has always been ultra reliable under the high ball but some of his spectacular retakes from his own kicks have been truly inspirational and also have the effect of lifting the crowd behind the team.
However it is his ability to open up space on the counter attack that has really marked him apart in this championship. He has improved immeasurably in his ability to link and that has opened up another avenue for Tommy Bowe to exploit. In the absence today of O’Driscoll, O’Connell and O’Brien, Kearney could well be the man to grasp the initiative and light the flame for Ireland.
In the opposite corner is a young player making only his second start but we have seen enough of Stuart Hogg in this Six Nations to recognise Scotland have unearthed a quality back with blistering pace, great feet and the confidence to open up any defence. At just 19, his inexperience was there for all to see when Glasgow Warriors played Leinster in the Heineken Cup at Firhill when, playing in the centre, he butchered a three-on-one situation in the last minute, which cost Glasgow a chance to draw the game.
However, within minutes of being introduced off the bench against Wales, he lit up the Millennium Stadium and was denied a try on debut by a poor call from referee Romain Poite. He wasn’t long making up for that when his superb supporting run in his first start against France resulted in a try after only eight minutes. Scotland have been creating chances for two years now but had nobody who could finish. They have now.
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