Allan Massie: Irish will rely on key duo to keep firm grip in storm

Scotland will hope they can put key Ireland duo Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton under pressure. Pictuer: Dan Mullan/Getty
Scotland will hope they can put key Ireland duo Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton under pressure. Pictuer: Dan Mullan/Getty
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Forget the last ten minutes. They’re irrelevant. Italy did much the same against Ireland last year or the year before, scoring tries when the game had long been lost. And, indeed, we in the past have often scored fine examples of the so-called consolation try.

The previous 70 minutes were generally satisfactory, also surprising, for it is hard to recall a Six Nations match in which Scotland never for a moment looked at risk of defeat. This being so, you have to say that the performance was pretty competent, even if we scorned quite a few try-scoring opportunities.

It will be different today. I can’t believe that anyone thinks that Ireland will not be determined to make amends for their defeat last week or that they will be shaken by it. Last season Scotland lost badly to Wales on the first day and went on to beat France and England.

Putting it simply, England made a dream start, got their teeth (metaphorically) into Ireland and never relinquished their grip, though it was loosened a bit for ten or 15 minutes in the middle of the first half. Ireland were never allowed to play the game they usually play so successfully. Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton were under pressure when they kicked; Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell seemed to have all the time in the world. The English forwards dominated the Irish pack, and so Ireland ran out of ideas by the hour mark. Given that we know this is a very good Irish team, this was England’s best Six Nations performance for years, probably since Stuart Lancaster’s last championship as coach before everything fell apart in the World Cup that autumn.

We can’t pretend that this Scottish pack looks as formidable as the one England fielded in Dublin. Indeed, in the absence of WP Nel and Sam Skinner, it may not be as strong as the one that started against Italy. The return of Jonny Gray is, of course, a boon, though Ben Toolis whom he replaces had a good game last week. All the same, besides the absentees mentioned, one would like to have John Barclay, Hamish Watson and Zander Fagerson in a match-day squad.

Everybody, of course, has injury problems, and the England game has deprived Ireland of Garry Ringrose, Devin Toner and CJ Stander. Ringrose is to my mind the most complete outside centre in the Six Nations, the towering Toner secures every lineout ball thrown to him and Stander is a very skilful, as well as powerful, No 8 who almost always breaches the gain line and gives his scrum-half front-foot ball.

On the other hand, Stander’s departure lets Sean O’Brien in, and O’Brien has had outstanding matches against us. It would be foolish to think the changes weaken Ireland, while the return of Rob Kearney at full-back is, I would guess, just what the doctor (if Irish) would have prescribed in view of the wretched weather forecast. No full-back anywhere is more secure under the high ball.

Indeed, if Ireland were already favourites, despite their defeat last week, the promise of wet and windy weather shifts the odds a shade further in their direction. Joe Schmidt has been telling us that Ireland know more than one way of playing. So indeed they do. Nevertheless, Sexton and Murray are both happy to put the ball ahead of their wings and supporting forwards, keeping it close to the touchline, and generally securing a tight grip on the opposition. Though Ireland can certainly play an open handling game, one always has the impression that they are happier keeping it narrow, squeezing the opposition and forcing them into mistakes than spreading the ball and risking turnovers. If the forecast is accurate, it would be surprising if Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour and Sean Maitland didn’t spend a good part of the afternoon under bombardment.

Scotland can doubtless play in more than one way, too, but it’s no secret that they want to play a handling game and spread play wide, while varying the angle of approach. Today’s players usually handle remarkably well in vile conditions, but long passes go astray in the wind and knock-ons are more frequent when a runner comes on to the slippery ball at pace or on a diagonal. Scotland’s try-scoring strength is in the back division and their backs would undoubtedly prefer a still day and a dry ball. Indeed, the Glasgow contingent may be asking how they have offended the Weather Gods, two of their home Heineken matches having been played in dreadful conditions that didn’t exactly encourage flowing play.

Dwelling on the likely weather may be pessimistic. Finn Russell and Greig Laidlaw may kick as well as Sexton and Murray. The depleted pack may exceed expectations. The set scrum and lineout may be secure. All, in short, may be well. Long long ago, this weather forecast would have had Scots rubbing their hands cheerfully. No need for hands indeed – just the day for the foot-rush, the controlled dribble which forwards spent hours practising. But an age has passed since the roar of “Feet, Scotland, Feet” rose from the Murrayfield terracing.