After so much was said in the build-up to last weekend’s match in Paris, Irish fans were left wondering whether to take the draw as a good result or a bad one.
I guess we won’t really know for sure until we see how the team performs in its next match, which is of course this Saturday at the Aviva Stadium, where the Scots come to play for the first time.
On Tuesday Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary went to Ireland’s Carton House Hotel training camp to give them an inspirational talk, which was somewhat ironic in that despite the injuries to his squad, Declan Kidney went on the next day to announce a match day 22 that compared to previous selection certainly contained no frills!
And when assessing Ireland’s chances this Saturday, you can’t help taking those injuries into account, particularly that to their leader Paul O’Connell. Already down the Lions skipper in the backline, the Munster powerhouse will definitely be missed just for his mere presence on the park let alone the phenomenal work-rate and leadership he has brought to this campaign.
One other key area he will be missed is the lineout. His replacement as captain Rory Best has shown good form overall this season, but one area he has been found wanting is in lineout throws, and wayward darts at both ends of the park have cost us in all our Six Nations matches to date.
This does not bode well going as the team, also without its regular forwards coach, prepares to face a Scottish lineout led by Richie Gray that is probably the most prolific in the tournament. The stats show they have pinched two each off England, France and Wales so far, but in reality they put so much pressure on the opposition throw that the required clean ball is rarely achieved.
Still, even though Kidney called up Connacht’s Mike McCarthy, a bit of a lineout aficionado himself, to the squad, he has gone with the “two Donnchas” as his locks, thus possibly conceding that this is an area where we may struggle on the day.
But for all the pessimism I feel that it must be remembered that for all Scotland’s dominance at this particular set-piece, they still have zero in the win column. So whatever about their ability to win the ball, they clearly haven’t been able to turn that possession into points on the scoreboard.
Here is where Ireland’s defence comes into play. I thought it was superb in Paris, and the lads were extremely unfortunate to concede the one try they did – Conor Murray had stripped the ball off Morgan Parra and rather than going forward it kindly fell laterally to Trinh-Duc whose quick thinking gave Wesley Fofana the space he needed to score. That was the only type of scenario where France could cross qaaqqine that day.
Although Murray had wretched luck in hyper-extending his knee, his replacement Eoin Reddan shouldn’t take too much from our defensive structure, as Les Kiss seems to have the entire squad tuned in to his philosophy.
Should we be able to employ the “choke tackle” as effectively as we did at the Stade de France, it could well negate the deficiencies in our lineout. On top of the tackling we mustn’t forget the sterling work Rob Kearney has put in – his assurance under the high ball is worth at least a converted try for Ireland in every match.
That still won’t be enough for victory this Saturday, I fear. Scotland may be winless, but they certainly will feel they deserved something from their first three matches. And although Andy Robinson unlink his counterpart has been willing to try new blood this season like Stuart Hogg and David Denton, they still have plenty left from the side that deprived us of the Triple Crown at Croke Park back in 2010.
So the Scots will definitely feel this match will be winnable as long as the scores are tight, which in turn means we will need to put scores on the board at every opportunity. This was something I felt was lacking in the squad in Paris, that our defensive game plan WAS our offensive one, and to do similar in front of their home crowd this weekend could be costly.
I expect Jonathan Sexton to resort to the high ball when he has possession in his own half and try and force the kind of red-zone front-foot ball he craves to create scoring chances. And though Tommy Bowe has been making the headlines for his try-scoring, something tells me there’s at least the one five-pointer for Keith Earls in this match.
When it comes to the loose, the pack has of course not only been deprived its leader but also Sean O’Brien. I thought he played well in Paris overall, but still finds the number 7 uncomfortable on his back. Although his replacement O’Mahony doesn’t regularly wear that number either, I would certainly back him to make the most of his first Test start and it could well raise Jamie Heaslip’s game a notch or two as well…I very much doubt Stephen Ferris could possibly have any more notches more to go up to!
Which leads me to my prediction. The Scots will come to play, and the will have some success, but if they score more than the one try I will be extremely surprised. If Sexton can impose himself and find his “Aviva form” the way he (albeit eventually) did against Italy, I can see at least two or three going over down the other end, and though we’ll always be likely to cough up silly penalties, it shouldn’t be enough to threaten the result, so I’m going for a home win by 10-12 points.
Also this weekend in the Six Nations I very much doubt the Welsh will find too much in the Italians to threaten their Grand Slam bid, while the French will find England hard to break down much like they did the Irish but still should come out on top.
We mustn’t forget the other Irish teams playing this weekend, most notably Mike Ruddock’s Under 20s who hope to keep their “Grand Slam” hopes alive as they face Scotland in Athlone. Also there’s the Women’s team, who followed up their narrow defeat in France with a comprehensive whitewash of the Welsh last week. They also play Scotland, this time at Ashbourne RFC.
Finally at Old Belvedere’s Anglesea Road pitch there’s a “clubs” international tonight between Ireland and Scotland. Really no excuse for Irish rugby fans, especially in the Dublin area, to get out and support their country!
That’s it for me this week, I’ll be back to look at our big St Patrick’s Day match in Twickenham. In the meantime, enjoy your rugby wherever you are! JLP
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