The Ireland team share a joke before training yesterday. Pic: INPHO/Dan Sheridan
IRELAND HAVE PLAYED three games in the Six Nations Championship to date and have won one, drawn one and lost one.
This doesn’t begin to tell the tale of an incredibly mixed tournament for Declan Kidney’s side, which has included performances of a vastly differing standard.
Injuries to Paul O’Connell and Conor Murray have forced Kidney into changes for the clash with Scotland this weekend. Somewhat predictably, Ryan comes straight in for O’Connell as does Reddan for Murray. A less logical selection was the inclusion of Tomás O’Leary on the bench.
Scotland will provide a stern test for Ireland on Saturday and the nine-point spread in the bookies seems a little generous but nevertheless, it is a game they would expect to win every day of the week.
Let’s address five key questions for Ireland ahead of the clash.
What Did We Learn in Paris?
There was much to take out of a fine performance in Paris, particularly in the first half. Firstly and most simply, we were reminded this is a high-quality team. The manner of the disappointing loss to Wales and the lethargic first half against the Italians had left the Irish rugby public frustrated. In Paris, the passive defence which allowed Wales to march up the field at will was replaced with a brutally aggressive line speed and tactical nous.
The French were cut off at source time and again and never really found a way around Les Kiss’s defensive system. To a man, Ireland defended brilliantly but special mention must go to Jonny Sexton who was outstanding and directly contributed to a couple turnovers. Impressive stuff from an outhalf.
Speaking of impressive performances, it is quite conceivable that Ireland possess the two best players in the world in their position on form in Stephen Ferris and Rob Kearney. Kearney was superhuman in the air again and attacked with real venom. Ferris is simply a physical phenomenon.
Can the Irish pack perform without Paul O’Connell?
Once again, the Munster man was the driving force for this Irish team in Paris last Sunday. The former Lions captain has been in exceptional form in this Championship; leading from the front with determination and power that few can match. O’Connell is not in the engine room of this team, he is the engine.
Ireland will be weakened without O’Connell, of that there can be no dispute. But the extent of the damage his loss incurs remains to be seen. Donncha Ryan is ready and more than able but his partnership with Donncha O’Callaghan wouldn’t strike fear into the opposition.
O’Connell will of course be missed at lineout time too, not to mind his leadership. Whichever way you wrap it, it is a massive blow for Ireland and their pack is weakened. The likes of Heaslip, Best and Ferris will need to step up.
Can Ireland be more inventive?
For all the hunger and brilliant defensive work displayed in the Stade de France on Sunday, Ireland still didn’t look like opening up the French defence on many occasions. Both tries came from two moments of brilliant Tommy Bowe vision and Ireland only had two line breaks in the whole game.
The likes of Bowe, Earls, Kearney and Trimble, for that matter, can all be lethal with ball in hand. Ireland need to endeavour to put them into space on a more regular basis. Quick ball will of course be key to this and the introduction of Eoin Reddan may aid the process.
The backline is functioning rather than firing just at the moment and it is all a little lateral. The weapons seem to be in place; Ireland need to get their arsenal firing now.
Mike Ross at squad training yesterday: Pic: Inpho/Dan Sheridan
What can we expect from Scotland?
This is a very decent Scotland side who can count themselves unlucky not to have at least one win on the board by this stage, if not two. The back five of their scrum have been impressive thus far, with number eight David Denton outstanding against France. He is joined in the back row by Ross Rennie and John Barclay in what is a very decent trio.
Their backline is more limited but certainly not to the extent of the Italians. Stuart Hogg performed well against France with the ball in hand and Andy Robinson has selected Nick De Luca to come in at thirteen for the Ireland clash.
Against France, Scotland had six line-breaks to their three and butchered numerous clear try scoring opportunities against England to boot. Although not exactly clinical, the Scots will bring a physicality and ferocity with them around the pitch and will pose Ireland problems. Make no mistake about it.
Will Ireland perform when they are not the bitter underdogs?
Unfortunately, Ireland go into this tie as pretty strong favourites. I say unfortunately as history has not been kind to Ireland when they have been burdened with this tag. Time and again, they have produced their best displays when they have been written off, criticised and dismissed without regard. It is then that this team usually rises up and produces a performance to make the hairs on the back of the neck stand up.
As with most Irish teams, regardless of the sport, the favourites tag just doesn’t seem to sit well. Maybe it is something which is embedded into our psyche but there is a clear pattern there.
The bottom line is that Ireland have now set a bar in Paris and have to arrive to the Aviva on Saturday with the same attitude and intensity as they did in the Stade De France. Otherwise, all the good work will have been undone and we will back to square one.
Scotland will want this one badly given their Championship to date so Ireland have to want it just as much. Otherwise, there may be trouble.