Ireland flew into Edinburgh last night with what head coach Joe Schmidt described as a “quiet confidence” that the players he will send into the RBS 6 Nations fray at Murrayfield tomorrow can ignore the hype surrounding Scotland and continue their winning ways.
Vern Cotter’s team may have only beaten three tier-one sides in the past 12 months — Italy, France and Argentina — and have not defeated Ireland in the Championship with his fellow New Zealander Schmidt at the helm.
However, all the talk in the build-up to this season’s opening game has been about how good the Scots are.
Schmidt has been happy to go along with the assessment and yesterday he returned to the theme as he named his matchday 23 for tomorrow’s showdown and claimed Scotland would not be so easy to beat as they had been for his players in each of the last two campaigns.
Yet, he has selected a line-up with plenty of experience of defeating rugby’s big guns last year, even those players he was forced to go to in the absence of injured frontliners.
Johnny Sexton will be missing with a calf strain and was rated by his head coach as an ‘outside chance’ for Italy in Rome eight days from now, yet such is the strength in depth of this current Ireland squad Schmidt can call on Paddy Jackson, the fly-half who steered his side to victory over Australia in November, as his stand-in.
Peter O’Mahony is considered highly unlikely to recover from a borderline grade one/two hamstring strain in time for the trip to Italy yet such is the competition for places in the Ireland back row that the Munster captain might have had to settle for a place on the bench behind CJ Stander, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip and even then he would have had Josh van der Flier for a rival, the young Leinster flanker who came off the bench in Chicago and helped tame the All Blacks.
It goes on like that.
A medial knee ligament “niggle” for Donnacha Ryan lets Iain Henderson into the second row alongside Devin Toner, while a groin strain for Andrew Trimble allows Grand Slam winner Tommy Bowe back onto the bench behind a back three of Rob Kearney at full-back and Munster wings Simon Zebo and Keith Earls.
No Jared Payne in midfield? Then just keep the burgeoning Leinster partnership of young guns Robbie Henshaw and Garry Henshaw together.
Whether that depth extends throughout Ireland’s replacements is the next question to answer for Schmidt, who has named uncapped Munster hooker and former Ireland U20 skipper Niall Scannell as back-up to captain Rory Best in the absence of the injured Sean Cronin, while the presence of Munster tighthead John Ryan is a welcome recognition of great European form, even if the consensus was that Finlay Bealham would continue to shadow Tadhg Furlong.
In Donnacha Ryan’s absence, Ultan Dillane is the second row replacement, offering plenty athleticism off the bench alongside van der Flier with Ian Keatley, not selected since 2015, preferred to the uncapped Rory Scannell as the reserve playmaker.
Schmidt is always more comfortable talking about the opposition and when it comes to Scotland, denying them the ball is of paramount importance given their ball-carrying threat.
“Of course we’re not going to try and give the ball back to them,” he said, “whether it’s the combative carry of guys like Ryan Wilson and Jonny Gray, Josh Strauss and Richie Gray. And even the young guys like Zander Fagerson, who’s just stepping up all the time.
"Or whether it’s their more fleet-footed guys, the likes of Tommy Seymour, Hogg, Maitland aided by Dunbar and Huw Jones and Watson is the link between the two. So you just don’t want to give them ball. You don’t want to allow them time and space because they make really good use of it.”
With 13 Glasgow Warriors in the Scotland 23 named yesterday by Cotter and seven Munstermen in Schmidt’s matchday squad, there could be a danger of recent wounds resurfacing given Conor Murray’s complaints that his standing leg was targeted by the Glaswegian forwards during the Irish province’s European victory at Scotstoun last month.
Yet Schmidt said he expected the page to have been turned by the 2.25pm kick-off.
“I think that once you’re playing in a national side that it very much becomes focused on a new beginning and a new team against a new team.
“I know there’s a number of Munster guys on our team and there’s a number of Glasgow Warriors in theirs but it’s a different environment, Ireland against Scotland and that in itself puts a different hue on the whole thing.
“I think we’ve got two of probably the best kicking nines in the game so they will be conscious of looking after Greig (Laidlaw) and we’ll be conscious of looking after Conor.
“I don’t think we’ve spent any more time on it, just because you don’t really have that much time so there’s lots of other elements of the game that we have to put together to be as ready as we can be.”
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