If the media appear to have been anticipating this moment for several weeks, coaches Joe Schmidt and Vern Cotter have been preparing for this showdown since the Autumn Series ended. The time has come when all the chattering ends and the real business can begin.
Scotland’s recent record against Ireland does not make for pleasant reading or optimism about today’s result. In the 17 Championship matches since the turn of the millennium, the Scots have won just three.
Each year we talk the team up and almost each year the Scots find a new way to lose. Two seasons ago Ireland stuck 40 points past Scotland at Murrayfield to win the Championship. Last season Ireland enjoyed 80 per cent of possession in the first half, Scotland conceded two yellow cards and the contest was over shortly after half time.
It is what it is, as Vern Cotter never tires of telling us, and the Kiwi may need to dust down his favourite phrase again if his side sees red for a head tackle as per World Rugby’s new guidelines.
This time last season I remember talking to one Scotland coach who pointed out that the team could play well and still finish the opening fortnight 0 from 2, which is almost exactly what happened. Such was the chasm between Scotland and the others (Italy excepted) that Cotter’s squad are still playing catch-up and it could happen again.
This season is supposed to be different, there is a distinct aroma of optimism in the air, but as everyone in the Scotland camp was quick to remind us this week, it is all meaningless until and unless this team wins matches and that won’t be easy.
The set piece is vital and Ireland have an edge in this department, largely because the Scots are without Ally Dickinson and WP Nel. Allan Dell will make himself a hero if the South African loosehead can resist everything that Tadhg Furlong throws at him. Zander Fagerson will be under even more pressure on the right-hand side of the scrum and, however good the 21-year-old’s technique may be, the youngster is going to find himself tested this afternoon in soul, spirit and psyche, as Ireland see if they can make him crack.
Cotter has gambled with selection because he could have gone safety first. Instead the Kiwi has picked ball playing forwards rather than set piece specialists from 1-8 including the front row… especially the front row.
Ross Ford would have helped anchor the scrum but Fraser Brown’s inclusion gives Scotland an extra flanker on the field. Gordon Reid has got the better of England’s Dan Cole in recent weeks but, a livewire around the park, Dell gets the start. The dynamism of Hamish Watson gets the nod over the experience and rugby brain of John Barclay, one player I would have liked to see start. In his Scotland on Sunday column the former Scotland lock Jim Hamilton asserted that the modern game is all about power and that theory will be tested this afternoon.
If Hamilton is correct, Watson will sink under wave after wave of green jerseys, never to be seen again. If Hamilton is wrong, then the only authentic openside flanker on the field might yet turn out to be a matchwinner.
It’s true that Scotland’s back division has threats across the field and Huw Jones, if he is anywhere near the form he displayed in November, threatens to steal the show, but Glasgow field a similar array of offensive weapons and they got little enough change out of Munster’s defence in three meetings so far this season.
The truth is that Ireland’s gameplan is far simpler than Scotland’s, which has a multitude of moving parts, any one of which can go wrong and upset the applecart.
And Cotter may have picked ball players but the rain that is forecast to fall before kick-off will only make slick passing almost impossible.
If this match was to be determined by a moment of attacking genius, then the Scots would hope to finish on top but Six Nations’ arm wrestles between two broadly equal teams are usually decided by other, far less exotic aspects of play like discipline, execution and a low error count.
The nuts and bolts of rugby don’t exactly make the heart flutter in anticipation of a spectacular show worthy of a three-ring circus but, nevertheless, these are winning traits and, if the Scots are learning the lines of this play, the Irish seem to have been force-fed them since birth.
In truth Ireland are a little like New Zealand whom they famously beat in Chicago. They don’t tend to do too much but they make sure they excel at a few basics… set piece, kicking for territory, kick chase, the aerial battle and closing down time and space when the opposition have possession so they get the ball back with high field position.
When Glasgow lost to Munster in the fifth round of the Champions Cup at Scotstoun, the Irish side earned 11 points directly from miscued Glasgow clearance kicks in what ended as a two-point match.
Whichever side makes the fewer mistakes tomorrow has a good chance of walking away with the win.
Ireland appear to have an slight but significant advantage in several key areas… set scrum, the bench and the back row of the scrum. Moreover, in Joe Schmidt the visitors have a coach who is not noted for giving a sucker an even break. He won’t take his foot off Scotland’s throat once he has them were he wants them.
For their part, the Scots come into this match with confidence and ability and belief, much of which is fully justified. They know they can win this one, but also know they will need to perform somewhere near their very best to do so.