Allan Massie: Irish are favourites but have been puzzling

Matt Williams. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Matt Williams. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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IRELAND arrive bruised, battered and depleted; yet will deservedly start as favourites tomorrow and no doubt confident of victory.

For the last decade they have been consistently better than Scotland, and only one or two of the matches have been close. Moreover, Leinster, Munster and Ulster have regularly beaten Edinburgh and Glasgow.

It’s true that they have lost half their side, but two of their absent stars, Tommy Bowe and Stephen Ferris were missing when they beat Wales in Cardiff. As to the others, the loss through suspension of Cian Healy, arguably the best loosehead available for Lions selection, is balanced by the divinely-ordained absence of Euan Murray, arguably the best tighthead prop available for Lions selection.

Then Simon Zebo and Mike McCarthy are replaced by Keith Earls and Donncha O’Callaghan, both Lions themselves – no great weakness there. One might add that the young Munster man, Peter O’Mahoney, the replacement for Ferris at No 6, has been playing so well that Ferris has scarcely been missed and must himself be a contender for a place in the Lions back-row.

The two really significant absences are Jonny Sexton and Gordon D’Arcy. Sexton is the best fly-half in the Six Nations and D’Arcy the best defensive inside centre, whose understanding with Brian O’Driscoll has for years been the rock on which Ireland’s defence has been based. Declan Kidney has picked the young Ulster No 10, Paddy Jackson, in Sexton’s place, and another Ulster man, Luke Marshall at 12. Some say these are bold selections. Given Ronan O’Gara’s poor form – he was wretched against England a fortnight ago and for Munster against the Scarlets last weekend – it might have required more courage to pick him. Nevertheless, the fact that Ireland are comparatively inexperienced at nine, ten and 12 may give Scotland a glimmer of an advantage, though I have a higher regard than many seem to have for Conor Murray at scrum-half.

What then of Scotland? I’m beginning to warm to Scott Johnson as coach. Despite his reputation as a maverick, he seems to have his feet on the ground and contrives to be both realistic and cheerful. He is keeping things simple too – in marked contrast to our previous Australian coach, Matt Williams, who baffled and bored his players with pseudo-science. Best of all, he seems to realise that coaches don’t win matches, though they can muck things up in such as way as to make it probable that they will be lost. It’s the players who count.

If there is a new feeling of optimism here it‘s because we seem at last to be able to score tries. Suddenly we have a back three, all of whom are more than keen to get to the opposition try-line. This is at least enlivening. On the other hand, as we all know, you win few matches, no matter how good your backs are, if the forwards don’t do their job in the set-piece and if they fail to provide quick ball. Andy Irvine and Jim Renwick were two of the best attacking backs we have ever had, but even when they were playing, we lost more matches than we won, because we rarely controlled the game up front after players like Sandy Carmichael, Iain McLauchlan and Gordon Brown dropped out of the side.

In the two matches so far, we haven’t won much more than a third of possession. That didn’t matter against Italy, though it ensured that we were almost always on the back foot at Twickenham. I doubt if we can allow Ireland as much ball as the English and Italians got. The Irish back-row of Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip and O’Mahoney are all powerful runners capable of driving deep into their opponents’ defence well beyond the gain-line and thus creating opportunities for their backs.

That said, Ireland have been puzzling this season. They were exceptionally good for 45 minutes in Cardiff, but then allowed Wales back into the game. Much of the Irish defence was heroic; nevertheless Wales scored three tries. Against England, in wet conditions that one had thought might favour Ireland, they made more handling errors than a good international team should make in a season. If England didn’t score a try, this was partly because they made very little effort to do so, being content to get into position to kick the penalties which Ireland obligingly coughed up. It seems unlikely that Ireland can play as badly again.

Last year we went to Dublin feeling quite cheerful after two defeats, against France at Murrayfield and Wales in Cardiff, in which we had, nevertheless, played with a good deal of enterprise and actually scored some fine tries. We were brought back to earth with a bump. As I wrote at the time, “just when we think things may be getting better, we play our worst match of the season.” I got it wrong; we were to play even worse in Rome a week later. Now we’re once again thinking things may be getting better. Hope springs eternal, even for veteran Scottish rugby supporters.