IT’S almost impossible not to go just a little green with envy when looking longingly over the water and seeing the rude health of Irish rugby.
It took professional rugby for the Irish to become, well, professional, and it was all kick-started by the provincial success that remains the bedrock of their game. Even now they boast three Heineken Cup quarter finalists. So it is something of a surprise to note that Scotland have won three of the last five Tests against today’s opposition, even if one of those was a World Cup warm-up rather than a full-blooded international played in the unforgiving glare of the Six Nations spotlight.
The Scots’ victories include last season’s match at Murrayfield, although quite how is still under investigation by NASA scientists, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! team and everyone else with a penchant for the peculiar. Ireland spent 86 per cent of the first half inside Scots territory and turned around 3-0 in front. “Jacko” missed two from three at goal, which may not surprise you, but it was Paddy rather than Ruaridh Jackson whose radar was wonky and Scotland came off the canvas with a second-half fightback.
Speaking after the game Scotland coach Scott Johnson was quick to praise the resilience of his side, arguing “that’s a skill too”, and, while he may have a point, no one should bet the bank on a repeat performance. Ireland couldn’t be so careless with the final pass this afternoon if they played in handcuffs, and the dogged determination in adversity that the Scots produced that day comes around with Haley’s comet. It was a one-off, a freak show and one that won’t be repeated this afternoon.
So what can we expect? According to Johnson a “fast and open game”, even if that would play into Ireland’s hands. They play fast and loose, while watching their opponents struggle to live with the hectic pace.
The Scots know what is coming but that’s not to say they will be able to do much about it. Looking at the two line-ups, it is difficult to see where today’s visitors have a clear and obvious advantage, except possibly on the wings, where Ireland are missing their first-choice picks. The two packs look evenly matched, which at least offers some hope, but Scotland have been roasted at the breakdown by the Irish for years. The Scots need to win the collisions and create a ruckus at the rucks because Ireland like to play multi-phase rugby at a high tempo and the only way to stop them is at source. Once the men in green get their dander up, the Scots will be chasing shadows and the scoreboard will run away from them. If this match is to be won at all, then Scotland’s forwards must neuter Ireland’s own strength at the breakdown.
The front row battle could go either way but it’s worth remembering that Geoff Cross was wearing the No.3 shirt when Scotland enjoyed a very obvious advantage in this area last year. Today’s tighthead is Moray Low, who has promised much and delivered little, although keeping a lid on Cian Healy today would be a good place for the Aberdonian to start.
The front rows will have noted today’s match referee, Craig Joubert from South Africa, with a Heavenward look. Joubert blew last year’s calamitous match between Scotland and Wales which boasted, if that’s the right word, a record 18 penalty kicks at goal, many of them from scrum infringements. Joubert has the reputation for being the best in the business but goodness knows how he got it. He will likely have a bearing on this afternoon’s events.
The Scottish back three are dangerous runners but unlikely to see too much ball passed down the line until they get within sniffing distance of the Irish line. Their most useful possession will come from broken-field play, turnovers and Irish kicks. Anything that is loose, without the requisite chasers breathing down Stuart Hogg’s neck, will be run back to good effect.
The problems lie in the Scots midfield where numbers 10, 12 and 13 boast a total of 17 caps between them and line up against two of the best in the business in Jonny Sexton and Brian O’Driscoll, with Luke Marshall, who has been in good fettle for Ulster, at inside centre.
Johnson has opted for a defensive set-up, damage limitation if you like, with a kicking stand-off to play in the right areas of the field and two big centres in Duncan Taylor and Alex Dunbar who will stand their ground. Neither is Billy Whizz with the ball in hand so the Scots will rely upon hitting Ireland on the counter and squeezing a few penalties from the breakdown, where Scotland’s loosies must win the battle over the ball.
It looks like a gargantuan task and it is. If you back Ireland you earn just one pound for every six you bet and they come into the game buoyed by an exceptional coach and the memory of a close call against New Zealand.
Scotland are underdogs, whelps, long-shots if not quite no-hopers, and the only redeeming feature is that the term fits the Scots like a Savile Row suit.
That favourites tag might be about the only thing they don’t envy their hosts.