Ireland have edge in grudge match – but Scotland have the ability to cause real problems
There has been a bit of an edge to games between Ireland and Scotland for a number of years. It has mainly played out on fan forums and in the media, but sometimes by the central characters too.
think it goes back to 2007, when Ireland won 19-18 in Edinburgh and Eddie O’Sullivan accused the Scottish lock Nathan Hines of trying to choke Ronan O’Gara at the bottom of a ruck. Hines was not charged with any offence. I played with him at Leinster and he played on the edge for sure.
In 2017, Scottish fans felt that we were ungracious in defeat at Murrayfield. That was when Joe Schmidt blamed the bus driver for getting the team late to the stadium, which upset the pre-match preparations and ultimately led to a poor performance.
There was also a time when there was a lot of animosity between Glasgow and Munster in the URC, although recently that seems to have calmed down a bit.
There is definitely a lot of respect among the current squads and management and both teams will be very aware that to win this afternoon they will need to be at their very best.
When you look at the threat that Scotland present today it’s impossible not to talk about Finn Russell. His relationship with the Scottish head coach Gregor Townsend is a marriage of convenience. Townsend was a maverick himself as an outhalf for Scotland and you would have thought that they should be kindred spirits. However, after many false dawns and disappointing results, Townsend dropped Russell from his initial squad for the autumn internationals. The coach believed that with Russell at 10 they could beat a team that they weren’t expected to, but would lose to ones they should be beating.
In a search for more consistency, Townsend selected three outhalves ahead of Russell. When quizzed by journalists, his explanation that Russell was being left out on form caused a huge amount of controversy and negativity towards Townsend himself. Injuries meant that Russell was quickly brought back in and he ended up starting and leading Scotland to what was a positive November series.
Russell is the one calling the shots now as Townsend is out of contract after the World Cup and the SRU have been interviewing for his replacement. A win today would probably force the SRU’s hand to stick with him, but the fact that they share a World Cup group with Ireland and South Africa may mean missing out on the quarter-finals, as they did in Japan. This would make it extremely hard for Townsend to start another World Cup cycle.
Former Irish wing Shane Horgan summed it up brilliantly when asked what game plan Scotland need to beat Ireland by saying: “Scotland need to be more Scotland than ever. They need to go after Ireland with real ambition. Scotland’s modus operandi is we are good enough to go around you. The best part of Scotland’s game is potentially the worst part of Ireland’s game. They have to do it accurately and with energy.”
This Irish team hasn’t shown any obvious weaknesses in this Six Nations bar those defensive holes in and around the 13 channel we saw against Italy. I believe a lot of those issues were down to the late withdrawal of Garry Ringrose and his return will make us significantly better.
But there is no doubt that our wingers play high in defence and come infield to look for intercepts or ball and all tackles — a high risk-high reward strategy. We have missed a lot of tackles, 79 in fact over the first three rounds, but conceded very few tries which shows you the quality of our scramble defence.
Most teams don’t have the ball players or the skills to turn those missed tackles or a narrow defence into tries. But Scotland do. Russell sees the matrix of the blitz defence better than any other outhalf in the world and he has the courage to go for broke with a pass or kick to try and exploit it.
It doesn’t always work and interceptions, as we saw against France, are part of the risk. When Thomas Ramos picked off one of Russell’s long passes to run in a try from 60 metres in Paris, Russell shrugged his shoulders, gave a little smile and carried on playing with a carefree attitude that for a while looked like it could lead Scotland to a famous win.
I love to watch Russell but I would pick Johnny Sexton or Ross Byrne ahead of him for my team. Sexton and Byrne have a better feel for how to manage a game and steer their team home in tight situations.
While most teams are starting to lose players to injuries, Ireland are approaching the end of the tournament close to full strength, having suffered our injuries pre-tournament or in the early rounds. Tadhg Furlong’s return is massive and our front five definitely have the edge in terms or ball-playing ability and power. Scotland will miss their lock Grant Gilchrist, who is suspended following his red card against France. He is their James Ryan and he gives their pack that physical edge that all good teams need.
Having Robbie Henshaw and Jamison Gibson-Park back fit and ready to launch from the bench is massive and while Scotland have built a competitive starting team, the depth that Andy Farrell and the Irish system has built is incredible. When you see the Irish under 20s beat Scotland by 82-7 and Wales under 20s lose to Italy, it reinforces how we are going through a purple patch at all levels.
When the sun shines it’s time to make hay. Good hay for our senior team is a Grand Slam this year and this afternoon we should take another step closer.