Things are delicately balanced for Scotland ahead of the last weekend of action. A third win this afternoon would be the first time that had happened since 2006 and mean a third-place finish. Ireland can salvage their season and also finish third in the table. There is plenty to play for.
Ireland start as favourites and rightly so. They haven’t lost a Six Nations match at home under Joe Schmidt and their current run of eight wins on the bounce is their best showing in the championship. Scotland have not won at the Aviva/Lansdowne Road since 1998 (the 2010 win took place at Croke Park) but you fancy that Vern Cotter’s troops gave up listening to statistics a long time ago. They are busy writing their own story and the momentum with them.
The ghost of several absentees will haunt this match. Paul O’Connell has left a huge hole in the Ireland squad, while Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony, Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe are all posted missing. The Scots are similarly short-handed with key players Finn Russell and Jonny Gray both out of the equation.
It’s an opportunity for Duncan Weir and Tim Swinson but Weir wasn’t in the matchday squad against France and two thirds of Swinson’s 21 caps have come off the bench with the lock getting just three minutes of game time last Sunday, which tells its own story.
Ireland were lambasted for an over-reliance on kicking in Schmidt’s first couple of seasons only to cut loose against Italy last weekend and run in nine tries. So Scotland will wonder which Ireland side will turn up today and, according Matt Taylor, they haven’t a clue.
“They will be very confident after last week’s show when they scored nine tries,” said Scotland’s defence coach with a shudder. “If you look at the numbers they are averaging only 16 kicks per game so there’s definitely a change in the way they are playing the game. I was very surprised early on against England how much they ran it from their own 22.
“They did well with kicking for the past couple of years but now they’re trying to bring more attacking into the game. They had a really good game against Italy last week, they’re at home again.
“We need to be ready for both. If they run it we need to be up in their faces, we need good width in our defence… Also, if they do their kicks, whether it’s little grubbers down the edges or the high contestable ball, we’ve got to be all over that. We need to be aggressive with their running threat but also be constantly aware of their kicking threat.”
Any talk of Irish threats has to include Lions’ half-backs Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton, who are the stand-out players in green. If the Irish forwards can work up a decent head of steam, then you fancy Scotland will be dancing to Sexton’s tune all afternoon. The stand-off may have been operating a little below his best this season but that is still several rungs higher than most of his European rivals.
John Hardie is sure to give the Irish ten an old fashioned hurry up but the Kiwi could have seen yellow for his dangerous tackle on Maxime Machenaud last weekend and he’ll need to tread carefully, especially since the French referee Pascal Gauzere may get over-protective in light of Sexton’s history of concussions.
Instead, Scotland will want to stop the Irish danger man at source by winning the battle of the gain line. Stop the Irish forwards on or behind the most important line not drawn on a rugby field and the Scots have a chance of neutering Sexton.
On the flipside, Ireland boast the ball carriers in CJ Stander and Jamie Heaslip to do some damage. In the absence of David Denton and Josh Strauss (who starts on the bench) the Scots have no one of their ilk and who in the Scottish front five is going to step up and do Jonny Gray’s heavy lifting?
When asked what Scotland need to do to win, everyone seems to parrot the same answer – discipline and defence; knock over the men in green and don’t give them easy anything.
“They’re a very good side on the front foot and they’re hard to get the ball off once they get into the game,” is Taylor’s advice. “Keeping them as far as possible from your try line in terms of field position is a start. They are very good at the set-piece so you’ve got to eliminate that. The third stage is all about the line speed, and winning the tackle contest, but they are very good in those areas.”
The danger is for the visitors is that they feel the job is already done. They have regained respect and stopped the rot but, hopefully, the hunger in this Scotland squad runs deeper than that. Ireland are professional and competent but far from the unstoppable force that won back-to-back trophies.
“There’s going to be two teams out there wanting to do the same thing,” said Taylor. “We’ve been very focused on coming over here and performing very well and, if we perform well, we’ve got an opportunity to win.
“We’re under no illusion that it’s going to be tough. They’re a good team and they’ve got a good record here but I feel, if we do our bit right, we’ll put ourselves in a good position.”