The keys to avoiding any tartan traumas this afternoon for Schmidt’s Ireland
The quality of Ireland’s front five has been under-appreciated in this championship to date but any side that has dominated the possession stakes as comprehensively as Ireland must possess a rock-solid set piece.
In the games against France, Italy, and Wales, Ireland enjoyed 62%, 67% and 75% possession respectively, which is highly unusual at this level.
Much of that stems from the accuracy of the scrum and lineout platform and, leading on from that, the ability to hold and recycle possession through multiple phases due to technical accuracy in contact.
To be able to build even further on those impressive opening round possession stats against Wales, shorn two Lions in the front five in Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson, says everything about the impact made by James Ryan and Andrew Porter in that game.
With Furlong back and Henderson set to be sprung from the bench, Scotland’s front five will be in for a stern examination.
Their scrum was barely hanging on in some of the early games but the return to action of props Simon Berghan and WP Nel on the tighthead side made a massive improvement against England when, surprisingly, their scrum was never put under any real pressure. Ireland will examine the credentials of this Scottish front five to expose any potential soft spots with far more intensity than England managed.
The introduction of Grant Gilchrist — who Vern Cotter wanted as his captain until injury robbed him of several caps — to the second row after the debacle in Cardiff has made a difference to their lineout and to the contact area.
He has also succeeded in taking a lot of pressure off the hard-working Jonny Gray.
Scotland’s lineout is still vulnerable, however, and is top of the table in terms of lineouts lost in the championship to date with six.
That said, what stood out against England was the ability of the Scottish forwards to nullify England’s powerful maul by concentrating their efforts on the deck rather than in the air and killing the drive at source.
Given that so many Irish scores are generated from attacking mauls, as a result of the opposition conceding kickable penalties when trying to negate it or by tries generated from the drive itself, Scotland will be hellbent on replicating their ability to stem that at source, without conceding penalties, right from the off.
Perhaps the most important figure in the Scottish coaching box today is forwards coach Dan McFarland, operating in his first ever Six Nations championship. McFarland spent years operating at the coalface of Connacht rugby, both as a player and coach, and has made a big impact since joining Gregor Townsend in Glasgow a few seasons ago.
A key factor today will be his inside knowledge of a number of the Irish forwards from his time coaching the Wolfhounds and Emerging Ireland when he was directly exposed to the key technical nuances that Joe Schmidt demands of any forward operating in the Irish system.
Ireland have dominated possession to the degree they have mainly because they set more rucks per game than any other side.
To date in the tournament, they have generated 412 rucks compared to second-placed England on 348. Ireland wear teams down.
Wales facilitated Ireland at the breakdown by refusing to commit numbers. Scotland won’t make that mistake. They will chase Ireland in the tackle, compete furiously in contact and seek to slow Ireland’s recycle at all times. McFarland will have his players excellently briefed in what Ireland look to achieve technically.
In captain John Barclay, tigerish open side Hamish Watson and hooker Stuart McInally, a converted wing forward, McFarland has three really effective poachers.
Barclay was superb on both sides of the ball against England, complemented magnificently by Watson whose work on the floor and powerful carries exposed the lack of balance in the England loose trio.
Scotland’s counter-rucking was equally effective and that proved decisive in generating an impressive nine turnovers.
McFarland will have highlighted how Ireland’s multi-phase game revolves around technical excellence in the contact area in terms of aggressive cleanouts, long ball presentation, and the ability to get bodies between the opposition and Conor Murray at the base.
It also helped Scotland’s cause at the breakdown against England that Nigel Owens was the man in the middle.
He likes to let games flow and tends to be less forensic.
He encourages more of a contest which suited the Scottish cause perfectly.
Games with Owens in charge generally have fewer penalties and more ball in play time.
Today’s referee Wayne Barnes will police the ruck with far more zeal which will put the Scottish back row on notice, especially if he gets on their case early.
Ireland must encourage that to happen. They cannot allow the speed of recycle to be slowed down. That would impact greatly on the ability of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton to control the momentum and build their multi-phase game.
The quality of game management offered throughout the championship by Sexton and Murray has proved a real point of difference for Ireland. Every team targets that pairing but the quality of the platform set by the Irish forwards has meant that no side to date has succeeded in blunting their influence.
The roles will be flipped today as Ireland will be the ones seeking to expose potential weaknesses in the Scottish half-back pairing.
Finn Russell is so crucial to the way Scotland play that if you can get to him, as Wales did in Cardiff, then their attacking game comes under big pressure.
France weren’t good enough to capitalise on Russell’s woes in that contest but the Glasgow playmaker displayed major character in bouncing back with a dominant showing against England.
When he plays well, Scotland play well.
In contrast to his opposite number, however, Russell’s game management is suspect in that he is always in search of the miracle pass even when it’s clearly not on.
He succeeded against England, with one sumptuous floated pass to Huw Jones splitting the English defence wide open.
On too many occasions, however, those attempts have intercept written all over them.
Inside him Greig Laidlaw provides leadership, is a key placekicker and, as he demonstrated against France when Russell was having a shocker, acts as an auxiliary out-half with the smarts to play in the right places.
Problem is, the Lions tour exposed limitations in his primary function at scrum-half.
His passing was laborious. Ireland will have identified that and will use it as a means to put even more pressure on Russell.
If Ireland allow Russell the space to operate, as they did in Murrayfield last season, then Scotland have the capacity to score tries. Townsend will attempt to expose Ireland’s defensive vulnerability in the wide channels where the home side has conceded far too many tries of late.
In Stuart Hogg, Six Nations player of the tournament over the last two seasons, Scotland have the best counter-attacking full-back in the championship and his ability to link with Sean Maitland and new try-scoring sensation Jones will cause Ireland problems.
With so much attention focused on those defensive frailties recently, one expects that Andy Farrell will have addressed the individual rather than system errors that facilitated those try scoring sprees from Italy and Wales.
If Ireland can solve that defensive chink they should have enough in reserve elsewhere to maintain an unbeaten run which would extend to a record 11 games before heading to Twickenham next Saturday.
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