It is tricky business forecasting what is going to happen in any Six Nations’ match and Dublin this afternoon is no exception. So instead, I will tell you – with almost absolute certainty – what won’t happen.
John Barclay and Hamish Watson won’t win anything like as many turnovers at the breakdown as they did against England because Ireland coach Joe Schmidt will have watched the Calcutta Cup tape 23 times and Ireland’s forwards will blitz blue bodies out off the rucks like they are infectious.
Garry Ringrose won’t jump out of the Irish defensive line on the Scottish twenty-two and invite Finn Russell to send Huw Jones racing fifty yards upfield for Sean Maitland to score, because he will have seen Jonathan Joseph make that mistake at Murrayfield.
All generals are fighting the last war and all sports reporters are assuming that the last match is a reasonable guide to what will happen in the next one, when they should instead be using it as a contrary indicator. Coaches are forewarned, they plan against what they have seen but anticipating new developments is a lot more difficult, for them and us pundits.
So, with absolutely no guarantees, here is my best guess as to where today’s match will be won and lost – the set piece and bench.
Look at last season rather than the last few weekends. In 2017 at Murrayfield Ireland had five scrums and won three penalties. Today they boast three props with experience of Lions’ Test match rugby, Healy, Furlong and McGrath. The set scrum has barely featured in this championship so far, almost an irrelevance, which is why the Scots should be extra vigilant.
A makeshift Scottish front row has performed minor miracles to date and they will need some major ones to get out of the Aviva with pride intact.
Looseheads are normally the attacking weapon of choice in the set scrum but that may be turned turtle today because the tighthead props, in green and in blue, look significantly better scrummagers than the loosies do.
Schmidt also held on to Devin Toner when most people anticipated a quick recall for Ian Henderson. The 6ft 11in Toner is a handy weapon to have at the sidelines when Grant Gilchrist, the tallest man in the Scottish team, is conceding three inches at the very least. With a lineout trio of James Ryan, Toner and Peter O’Mahony, Ireland will fancy their chances of nicking one or three of Stuart McInally’s arrows and that may be enough.
Scotland have mixed things up well at the sidelines. Gilchrist is the favoured target with six wins and the tail, John Barclay and Ryan Wilson, were used extensively against England with seven wins between them so we can probably expect something different this time… unless forwards coach Dan McFarland fancies a double bluff? The point is that Toner’s very presence in the middle of the Irish line ratchets up the pressure on the Scots.
The one time McInally’s serenity has been seriously ruffled, the Scots lost three throws in Cardiff (one from Scott Lawson).
Kicking from hand, where Ireland have a slight edge, will be vital but so, too, will catching and the visitors look well equipped is that department. As head coach Gregor Townsend rightly pointed out, all of the Scottish back three have experience at full-back, which has to help. It’s difficult to call Jacob Stockdale vs Blair Kinghorn a battle of the giants, but Sean Maitland should edge the diminutive Keith Earls in the air.
Finally, the bench,where Ireland have a clear and obvious advantage. They have Lions Test forwards in Jack McGrath and Henderson to make an impact. In addition they have Andrew Porter, who lacks experience but more than makes up for that with sheer weight and size. If you were to check the blueprint for a tighthead prop, it would look an awful lot like the 22 year old Dubliner.
In the back row, Jordi Murphy is preferred because he has played most of his rugby at seven and Schmidt will throw him on early if the Scottish poachers can’t be stopped in any other way. And, if Ireland need to chase the game in the final quarter, they can call upon Joey Carbery and/or Jordan Larmour, either of whom could win the game on their own. Ali Price is perhaps the only equivalent on the Scotland bench.
Scotland have a puncher’s chance but Ireland should have a little too much muscle up front. They may make mistakes, but they will be different to the ones England made at Murrayfield.