Six Nations: Scotland and Ireland’s imperfect tens
It’s not often that two players who share the same name also share many of the same attributes, as well as the weight of expectation that Ruaridh Jackson and Paddy Jackson are both shouldering this afternoon.
They are young at 21 (Paddy) and 25 (Ruaridh), both caused a stir coming through the ranks and, while it’s a tad early to be writing off either man, neither has quite lived up to that early promise.
Paddy Jackson’s selection was greeted with anything from astonishment to bemusement across Ireland, where most pundits wanted Ian Madigan or Ian Keatley and expected Ronan O’Gara, who was very obviously foremost in coach Declan Kidney’s mind until very late in the day.
Had Kidney made the Jackson call early on then the young Ulsterman would surely have been handed the kicking duties when Ulster took on Zebre a week last Friday. Instead Ruan Pienaar stepped up as usual. It looks like Kidney was going with O’Gara right up to the moment that he watched the veteran implode for Munster last Saturday at Parc y Scarlets, where the Irishman managed to kick only one penalty from four attempts as the visitors slumped to an 18-10 defeat.
His are big boots to fill. At 21, Jackson is 14 years O’Gara’s junior and 129 caps shy of his international tally. What’s more, Paddy Jackson is being asked to direct the traffic in a match that may decide Declan Kidney’s future as Ireland coach, despite the fact that the youngster was pulled from last season’s Heineken final just after half-time and dropped to the bench by Ulster for their last pool match against Castres just months ago. His goal-kicking is hit and miss and his game management has rarely been tested because Pienaar takes care of that, too.
His opposite number today, Ruaridh Jackson, is made from the same raw material. Ruaridh has started the last three games for Scotland but only after being left out of the summer touring squad altogether in favour of Greig Laidlaw, a No.10 who is a specialist scrum-half. Ruaridh came off the bench against New Zealand and South Africa in the autumn Tests to good effect but, a few weeks later, had swapped Murrayfield for Mayfield as he turned out for Dundee in the British & Irish Cup.
He has a nasty habit of seeing his clearance kicks charged down and, while he got into the Test team on the back of some decent form for Glasgow, it’s fair to say that he still has work to do to establish himself at the highest level. Ruaridh’s kicking from hand is like the rest of his game, a work in progress but, as long as Laidlaw is on the field, at least the Scot does not have the added burden of kicking at goal.
If today is a tale of Jackson and Jackson, then the plaudits may go to the player who can hold his act together the longest, because neither is a poster boy for reliability.
Ireland have been at the top of the European game for a decade or more but will arrive at Murrayfield on crutches. They might as well have chartered an air ambulance for the short flight from Dublin to Edinburgh.
Former superstar stand-off O’Gara is “riding the pine” and Kidney has the wrong man as captain. Jamie Heaslip’s form has dipped accordingly and the man who should be king, Brian O’Driscoll, is held together with a mixture of blind faith and surgical tape.
With injuries and suspension, Kidney is missing half his team, including world-class figures such as Paul O’Connell, Cian Healy and Stephen Ferris. Yet the visitors are still favourites to win at Murrayfield this afternoon.
The only surprise is that anyone should express surprise. You only need to look at the none-too-recent history of the Championship to work out why. Scotland are attempting what they have not achieved since 2001, back-to-back wins in the Six Nations.
There has been an occasional shaft of sunlight to brighten the gloom, but the pervading mood in Scottish rugby since the turn of the Millennium has been about as cheery as Edvard Munch’s The Scream. The Scots have won just 17 of their 67 Six Nations matches, almost exactly one in four. Occasional victories over England (2008) and Ireland (2010) have been rare treats in a diet of swill. Scotland have not beaten Wales since 2002 and have worked their way through five different head coaches since Ireland last lost a meaningful match in Edinburgh.
It’s all pretty sobering stuff, so we can be forgiven for looking at the rout of Italy last time out with a jaundiced eye. The long-suffering Scotland fans have seen more false dawns than Universal Studios and this might just be another.
At least there was some extra bite to last week’s training sessions, which may have had something to do with a visit from British & Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland, who was at Murrayfield on Tuesday evening and most of Wednesday.
A cardboard cut-out of the man in his big red jacket might persuade the Scots to bring their best to every session and Scotland’s big men need something to get them going, because they have yet to get out of second gear in attack.
They have trailed a distant second on the possession and territory statistics in both matches to date. The forwards need to scrap like streetfighters at the breakdown, prove they can keep possession once it is won and then take large chunks out of the Irish defensive line with the ball in hand.
While this squad have proved they can score from broken play, you have to suspect that Ireland, the most cynical of a pretty cynical bunch, have both the experience and the expertise to minimise those opportunities in a way that Italy did not. Murrayfield holds no fear for the Irish and, listening to him last week, Scotland coach Scott Johnson is not expecting Kidney’s team to be overcome by an attack of the vapours this afternoon.
“We are expecting them to have a real crack at us,” said the Aussie. “They’re coming with that intent, that’s where they are. They’ve got good guys at the back, they’ll want to do what England did to us. We’re just going to have to man up here. We have to get our part right and that’s what I keep saying. We understand there will be a flurry, we understand that and we have to man up, there are no ifs or buts about it.”
The next game is always the most important and this afternoon’s is no exception. Ireland are fighting to remain relevant in the tournament. Another loss and they are out of contention. The prize is all the more enticing for the Scots, the respectability that would come from a win over Ireland, even with their absentees. This Scotland squad could start the long process of clawing back some of the ground lost over the last decade.
If the Scots can somehow squeeze their collective nose over the finish line a millimetre or so ahead of Ireland today, it won’t make them world-beaters but it would put a smile on the face of the fans and offer the players an injection of confidence, while the rest of the rugby world might just begin to believe that the game is stirring once again in the cold north.
WHERE THE SCOTS CAN WIN IT
• Mike Ross is big beast but Ryan Grant will hope to get inand under the Leinster tighthead and make his life difficult.
• The Scots will look to camp in the Irish half early on and milk penalties where possible so hot-shot
• Kicker Greig Laidlaw can get the scoreboard ticking over.
• It’s not often that two players make their Test debut side by side so the Scots are sure to throw plenty of heavy traffic down the Irish 10/12 channel.
• Scotland will try to break up play to get their back three involved. Expect some tap-and-go penalties.
• No.8 Johnnie Beattie will have a free rein to pop up in the wide channels since he has the pace, vision and skills to make something happen.
WHERE THE IRISH CAN WIN IT
• Paddy Jackson will throw up a few bombs designed to fall between Tim Visser and Stuart Hogg in the hope of spreading a little panic in the ranks.
• Brian O’Driscoll knows he’s up against a winger playing at outside centre and will fancy his chances if he can engineer a one-on-one with Sean Lamont.
• Muscular ball-carriers Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip will expect to punch holes close to the breakdown as the Scots back row are long and leggy by comparison.
• Prop Tom Court has already tested Moray Low in the Heineken Cup this year and will hope to do likewise to Geoff Cross.
• Scrum-half Connor Murray will look to exploit Scotland’s lack of pace around the side of the scrum.
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