Still, this year may be different. Though the Irish provinces again dominate the Pro14, the national team comes to Murrayfield having lost to Wales and France and beaten only Italy. It’s true that they must believe they should have beaten Wales – just as we should have done - but they were strangely unsure of themselves and lacking in ambition against France. Nevertheless they remain a very hard team to beat. They have lots of experience while also enjoying enviable strength in depth. If a Lions tour goes ahead, one would expect to see at least eight Irishmen in Gatland’s squad.
An interesting statistic was brought to my notice the other day. Ireland and France have each scored nine tries in the tournament to date - Ireland in three matches, France in two. Six of the French tries came from movements or passages of play that began in their own half; none of Ireland’s did. This is slightly surprising, given the quality of their back three, but it suggests that the first requirement when playing Ireland is to keep them pinned in their own half of the field.
Conversely if you allow them to establish a position in your 22, a try is very likely to follow. No team is better at retaining possession in the opposition 22 and going patiently and efficiently through multiple phases until they get over the line. Moreover, no team is better at scoring either directly or indirectly from a five-metre lineout. It’s fair to say that Ireland are better than Scotland at scoring tries once established in the opposition 22.
Well, one way to deny them such occupation rights is not to concede penalties. At Twickenham Scotland were admirably disciplined, and we won. Discipline was slack against Wales, and we lost. The three silly penalties conceded in succession near the end of the first half when we were leading 17-3 and looking very good took us deep into our 22 and Wales scored a try which shifted the momentum and the balance of the game.
Later of course came Zander Fagerson’s moment of rashness or stupidity and a red card. We will miss his powerful ball-carrying today, even if Willem Nel anchors the set scrum as effectively. In, as it were, compensation for Fagerson’s absence, Ireland are still without Peter O’Mahony, suspended for the same reason as Fagerson. He is a tremendous player who has been a thorn in Scottish flesh for years. Much as I admire him, I’ll be happy to see Ireland take the field without him.
The postponement of the French match means it’s a month since the Welsh game. This shouldn’t affect us. Most of the backs indeed played for their English or French clubs last week, as did Jonny Gray. Some of the other forwards may actually have benefitted from a break. Go through the two teams, man for man, and there’s very little to choose between them. Discipline, or the lack of it, has been a constant theme of this tournament. This may well be the deciding factor again today. If Scotland exercise the same self-control as at Twickenham and prevent Ireland from camping in our 22, we should win. If…
Ill-discipline has been England’s problem too, so much so that Eddie Jones has called in international referees to explain to his forwards what is permitted and what forbidden at the breakdown. England – played 3, won 1, lost 2 – are, like Ireland, out of contention for the title for which France are probably favourites. Even so Twickenham is never welcoming and there were some passages of play against Wales when England looked good.
France had moments in their last match in Dublin when they seemed a bit edgy, others when they were sublime. One of the features of the French regime that took over after the World Cup has been the togetherness of Fabien Galthie’s squad. There are mutterings that the breach of Covid regulations which led to the postponement of their match against us a fortnight ago has - or may have – provoked some discontent, even weakening this young team’s sense of brotherhood. Perhaps, perhaps not. In any case I wouldn’t expect England to dwell on this possibility. They have more immediate concerns: how to chain young Antoine Dupont and how to find the means of breaching a defence organised by Shaun Edwards. And of course, how to stop shooting themselves in the foot, even in both feet, by conceding penalty after penalty.