After the strangely out-of-sorts opener by an Ireland totally out thought and fought by a resurgent England, Joe Schmidt’s squad have an unenviable trip to Murrayfield to get their 6 Nations hopes back on track. PSA Academies’ Johne Murphy has a look at what needs to and is likely to happen.
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Well, that wasn’t what any of us was expecting, was it? The opening game of the 2019 Six Nations for reigning champions Ireland was always going to be a proper challenge with the ‘auld’ enemy England coming to town, especially an England side bolstered by returning wreaking balls in the shape of Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi. BUT what really wasn’t expected was that England would be the ones to show winning ingredients of composure, aerial dominance, tactical smarts and breakdown ownership.
The tone was set right from the off last Saturday, when England systematically dismantled Ireland’s stall while setting up their own. For the opening sequence, they literally ticked off the list of key tone setting match incidents – smashing Keith Earls to unsettle the rhythm of the Irish backfield, expertly shepherding/blocking the box kick and chase exit, sending Manu hurtling into space & Josh van der Flier. It was a dream start for England and a shocked home crowd, including myself, didn’t have to wait long for the first English try, when in keeping with the theme, a defensive misread saw them score on the left wing through Jonny May.
We don’t need to go through the match blow for blow, as it’s been analysed deeply (and sometimes with a touch of melodrama) in the media over the last week. Suffice to say, Ireland were a little off mentally for whatever reason, got hit cold by a very strong, motivated and tactically well prepared England team and while they worked themselves back into the game, a combination of a lack of accuracy, some in-game injuries, a few marginal calls and sheer English pressure meant that they just couldn’t pull off what would have been an undeserved escape.
Things haven’t exactly gone to plan since either, with Irish camp increasingly resembling the set of M.A.S.H., as more walking wounded get added to the ‘out of action’ list. Layer on top the clear messages from the coaches and players about taking ownership and making amends for what felt like a bit of a throwback to the RWC Quarter Final versus Argentina in 2015 and it certainly felt like a tough week at work in Carton House from the outside. Having said that, in a way, this has forced the reset button and has possibly helped to move the focus on afresh to Murrayfield, which is hard at the best of times.
There had been much chat before the tournament about squad rotation and whether Joe and his coaching staff would use the ebb and flow of the competition to experiment with RWC type selection changes. Well, with things a little pear shaped after week 1, the strongest possible team was always going to go onto the park versus Scotland this week (especially with the RWC 2019 Pool Game on the horizon) but injuries have delivered some of that rotation, whether we liked it or not. Out go the injured CJ Stander, Devin Toner, Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw plus the tactically replaced Josh van der Flier. In come, Quinn Roux, Sean O’Brien, Jack Conan, Chris Farrell and Rob Kearney. It certainly does emphasise the strength of the squad now, especially with players like Iain Henderson, Tadhg Beirne and Andrew Conway among those out injured since pre-tournament. The question is can these players have a galvanising impact on a starting team that looked maybe short of match fitness and edge in key positions last week?
Looking at it, I’m really expecting Ireland to be back to themselves, returning to the level of accuracy and controlled aggressiveness that was a hallmark of their Grand Slam exploits from the 2018 6 Nations. At the hub, I think Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton will be back on the same hymn sheet, adding a lot more impact to their tactical kicking in both attack and defence. I’m also sure that we’ll see a lot more variety in how Ireland will look to engage the Scottish defenders, adding a lot more variance in attacking angles from a wider range of potential ball carriers. Scotland may not have the physical power of that England team but in Gregor Townsend and his onfield marshalls Finn Russell and Greig Laidlaw, you have a very shrewd brains trust who will have seen exactly what England did well last week and will be second guessing the changes Ireland will look to make off the back of that. One things for sure, if we start like we did either last weekend or when last in Murrayfield in 2017, we’re going to find it another very difficult day.
For Scotland’s part, they had a good blow out versus a limited but typically competitive Italian side last weekend, what would seem to be the ideal prep to face into a match against us. While they have some injury concerns of their own, their key players are in great form and are carrying in the great momentum of the Champions Cup successes of Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors. In man of the match Blair Kinghorn, they have a young player in the mould of Jason Stockdale, who will bring buckets of confidence into this one. But despite these positives, as ever in Ireland’s clashes with Scotland, it will be the set piece and breakdown where the match will be lost or won, with Ireland looking to have the edge in both. The introduction of Quinn Roux as the fifth choice second row shouldn’t see the Irish set piece weakened much, while Sean O’Brien and Jack Conan offer something different in the contact area to keep the Scottish backrow and midfield guessing. And the introduction of Chris Farrell will surely give Ireland a new dimension in terms of physicality if he’s allowed run the hard lines that he thrives on.
Rob Kearney’s return was a likelihood that became a certainty when the unlucky Robbie Henshaw was ruled out and if fully fit, he should bring a new sense of assurance and presence to the back field, making it harder for Laidlaw and Russell to manipulate their kicking game. Andy Farrell will be happy to have a strong voice back in the set up and while Garry Ringrose’s absence is a loss defensively, this is still a very strong Irish backline on D.
After last week’s possible frustration with aspects of Jerome Garces’ refereeing, Ireland are going to have to park their grievances and get on with compatriot Romain Poite for this one. They have plenty of experience with these officials and Joe will have been drilling into them the need to take this variable in their stride.
Where all that leaves us is Ireland needing to find at least their B+ game to even be competitive, something that will be a really good test in the circumstances. Given all that they’ve achieved in the last 2 years in particular, they have more than earned our trust and the chance to get the year back on track. And I expect them to avail of that very chance, just showing enough to keep their Championship hopes alive heading to the clash with Italy in Rome.
Prediction: Ireland by 6 points
See all the picks for the PSA Academies 2019 NatWest 6 Nations Predictions Challenge here