Just one more step until a dream Grand Slam decider in Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day BUT can Ireland keep their focus and form to dispatch a buoyant Scottish side. Layer in the pool draw for RWC2019 and this is a key face off for the short term future of Irish Rugby. PSA Academies’ Johne Murphy dusts off his tea leaves to predict how he sees this one panning out.
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First up, and it’s worth reminding ourselves, Grand Slams aren’t easy things to win. Since 1883, there have been 37 Grand Slams won and no one really needs to remind us that apart from Italy (!), Ireland sits at the bottom of the Grand Slam table with only 2 in 135 years. The stakes are incredibly high for this weekend’s face off against Gregor Townsend’s Scottish side.
The fact that Scotland are coming to Ireland having hit their best form at the right time, with the massive Calcutta Cup win a fortnight ago, is probably both a negative and a positive. The negative is that we will face a more confident, energised, difficult opponent who really did a number on Eddie Jones’ reigning NatWest 6 Nations holders in Edinburgh. The positive is that there is no way that Ireland can or will look beyond what is a very tricky encounter. I suppose the key question to ask is have the Scots peaked too soon and effectively bottomed out their emotional reserves in beating the ‘auld’ enemy?
It’s been a topsy turvy Championship for Townsend, his coaching team and the Scottish squad. After a November Series that showed a real step change in performance, whupping Australia and running New Zeland to a single score defeat at home, hopes were sky high entering the 6 Nations. But a combination of mass injuries, questionable form of key men and what looked like an overambitious running gameplan saw them hosed by Wales in Cardiff and only scrape home against a tiring French side in Murrayfield.
Now their task is to back up the England performance, which was built on incredible emotion, ferocious and arguably illegal targeting of the breakdown and some exceptional attacking rugby that completely exposed the limitations of the England midfield and back three defence. No two games are the same and there is a big question mark about whether they have the game management and experience at this stage to come to a place like Dublin and beat seriously coached Grand Slam contenders who have been through the fire numerous times in Joe Schmidt’s tenure.
From Scotland, in simple terms, we can expect them to adopt a very aggressive wide game, looking to use the ball from pretty much everywhere in a bid to break up Ireland’s defensive system. The key for them will be to get Finn Russell on the front foot, using his exceptional passing game to get his strike runners in Huw Jones, Maitland and Hogg into the game early and running offensive lines that will really test the new centre partnership of Bundi Aki and Gary Ringrose, plus the defensive positioning of Jacob Stockdale. This is a real concern for me as Scotland’s biggest strength is, on paper at least, our biggest current weakness. The key to preventing this worst case scenario will be depriving Scotland of possession and with it pace, especially the turnover ball that killed England two weeks ago. It is only by controlling the pace and tempo of the game that Ireland can effectively nullify the firepower of the Scots.
Joe Schmidt’s team selection is interesting, with only Tadgh Furlong returning to the starting 15 from the various returning injured players. To be fair to the head coach, he is rewarding form as James Ryan had a brilliant game the last day and its great to see him holding his spot. You’d have to feel hugely for the injured Chris Farrell after his man-of-the-match Tour de Force against Wales but it just shows how far we have come over the last few years to have a player of Ringrose’s quality waiting in the wing’s to take his chance. It is a big test of a phenomenally talented player, who really needs to play up to his very best for Ireland to get the win they need.
In terms of the overall Irish game, our key offensive strength at the moment is our multi phase attack, being marshalled by Johnny Sexton. He bossed and controlled the Welsh game superbly well. It all looked effortless at times, organizing two, sometimes three, phases ahead, a real pleasure to witness live. Obviously his return off the tee in that match was an issue and I’m absolutely confident that whatever physical or mechanical issues caused this will be ironed out by tomorrow. Much like in 2009, when at times Brian O’Driscoll’s sheer will to win was the difference in winning key games, it feels like Sexton has locked onto the opportunity to deliver rugby history in this Championship. As a key player in the Lions Test, he is very much a positive outlier in terms of both form and fitness this season. Let’s hope that lasts through the full season!
With the quality of both benches reinforced by returning stars, there isn’t likely to be any drop off in quality late in the game. Ireland’s bench is packed full of game changers and Joe Schmidt knows each of them can deliver a massive impact if and when called upon. Again what a sign of the strength and depth.
In terms of how Ireland can win this, if we can get a quick fold around the corner in defence, filling the field effectively with our defensive line, suffocating the Scots, it could be a a very good afternoon in the Aviva. As in previous games, we can expect Ireland to enjoy the majority of the possession and territory stats but it will be the breakdown battle that will determine who gets the edge here. Referee Wayne Barnes is a stickler and if either side gets on his wrong side, that could be crucial in the other building a lead. By and large, Ireland under Schmidt have had a very effective disciplinary record (only conceding 4 penalties against Wales) so a repeat of that will put us in a great position. Scotland have their own game changers throughout the side and it is hard not to see them creating a lot out wide. However, they’ll need to convert every opportunity into points as Ireland are so comfortable in multi phase, they can rack up a serious score.
I think it’s going to be a cracker! Both sides have to go for it, as there is a Slam and Championship on the line, not to mention positioning for a crunch RWC2019 pool game in Japan.
I think we can expect a high scoring affair, with Ireland coming out on top in the last 20 minutes, primarily down to the impact of the bench.
Prediction: Ireland by 9 points
See all the picks for the PSA Academies 2018 NatWest 6 Nations Predictions Challenge here