IN THE old amateur days Scotland v Ireland was sometimes a rotten match, but always a grand occasion.
Ireland were usually ill-organised. They often had two or three great players and half-a-dozen who – to put it politely – had more spirit than skill, and as a team they tended to fade in the last quarter of the match. Things are different now. The domestic professional game is better organised in Ireland than in Scotland, England and Wales, and all their players have experience of winning regularly for Leinster, Munster and Ulster. You have to be pretty good to get into one of their provincial sides.
We go to Lansdowne Road with a record of played three, lost three, while Ireland have lost, a tad unluckily, to Wales, beaten Italy comfortably, and drawn in Paris They may yet finish as champions if they beat us and then England next week – though this depends on other results going their way. Nevertheless there is a feeling that Scotland may be about to turn the corner. An old Irish friend emailed me on Thursday to say: “I reckon Scotland could well get the win they richly deserve on Saturday. Though I would not be very happy if they beat Ireland, it would be no more than they deserve. They are becoming a very good side. Perhaps a small bit more self-belief is required. We shall see.”
These are my own sentiments, and it’s good to see them validated, as it were, from County Cork. The reason for optimism is clear. Scotland, invigorated by the inclusion of younger players free from the burden of years of failure, are now playing adventurous and imaginative rugby. Admittedly try opportunities have been missed and defensive errors have allowed opponents to score tries; nevertheless there is the feeling that at last things are coming together, and that a convincing victory is close.
As for the missed tackles which have cost tries, it’s fair to remark that in top-level international rugby today very few tries are scored without a bit of help from the opposition. That fine player Aurelien Rougerie gifted Ireland’s predatory winger Tommy Bowe his first try last week, while England’s two championship tries have come from charge-downs. Stuart Hogg’s try against France was made easier because Julien Malzieu had drifted out of position.
Dublin is a hard place to win, even though Ireland’s recent home record in the championship is surprisingly poor. They lost two of their three home matches last season, as well as losing to Wales this year. Moreover, the postponement of the match in Paris on 11 February means that they are now condemned to playing internationals on four consecutive weekends, tomorrow’s being the third of these and coming only six days after the re-arranged French match. This is a tough and wearing schedule. Worse still for them, that game brought injuries to Paul O’Connell, their captain in the season-long absence of Brian O’Driscoll, scrum-half Conor Murray and the explosive flanker Sean O’Brien. Perhaps the fabled luck of the Irish is deserting them.
The loss of O’Connell is the most important. Eoin Reddan is a more than adequate replacement for Murray and will be playing with his Leinster half-hack partner Jonny Sexton, while young Peter O’Mahoney, though only in his first season as a Munster regular, has been very impressive in the Heineken Cup and RaboDirect Pro12. But O’Connell has been at the heart of the Irish scrum and Irish success for years now, and has been back at his best this season. Moreover, he is the man to whom the ball is usually thrown at key lineouts, and, given the success of the Scottish lineout in previous matches, his absence may be significant.
The first 20 minutes will be very important. Scotland have admittedly started all three matches well, but Ireland dominated the French in the first quarter of the match last week, and looked as if they might sweep them off the field. Then, too often recently, and against England and Wales this season, Scotland have made costly mistakes immediately after half-time, and indeed lost both these matches because of them. We have also far too often been inept in dealing with restarts, and, in this connection, Jonny Sexton is a master of the high hanging kick up the middle of the field. The chance of a Scottish win may depend on an improved level of concentration at such moments.
Ireland may be depleted and there are questions over the front five of their scrum, but even in the absence of O’Brien they have a formidable back-row. Jamie Heaslip and Stephen Ferris are tremendous players and both are in fine form. Behind the scrum, Bowe is the most dangerous attacking wing in the Six Nations. Keith Earls has the invaluable knack of scoring tries, while big Rob Kearney is to Ireland what Gavin Hastings was to Scotland 20 years ago: a rock in defence and powerful in the counter-attack. The first rule of playing Ireland is “don’t kick the ball to Kearney”.
Thirteen of the starting Scotland XV pay their club rugby for Edinburgh or Glasgow To put optimism in perspective, we should remember that Leinster and Munster regularly beat the two Scottish clubs (Ulster indeed do so too, though that owes something to the influence of their South African contingent.)
Logically therefore, even without O’Connell, Ireland being at home start as slight favourites, but if Scotland play with the same verve as against France, add precision to it, and make their tackles, well then we may just pull it off.