Admittedly Ireland’s No 1 slot is misleading. Joe Schmidt’s side may be ranked at the top but they are no better than the fourth or fifth best in the world. And they know it.
Talking to various Irish journalists this past week, not one of them is confident of victory in the opening match despite the men in green winning six of the last seven meetings between the two teams and boasting four Test Lions in a useful-looking pack.
Oddly, Schmidt changed the winning forward formula that dismantled Wales in Dublin a couple of weeks back, which has raised a few eyebrows. Out goes 6ft 8in South African bruiser Jean Kleyn who is replaced by Iain Henderson. Peter O’Mahony replaces Jack Conan in the back row and CJ Stander is returned to No 8.
With Conan starting at eight against Wales some pundits thought that Schmidt was looking to expand Ireland’s limited horizons because the Leinster man has better hands than CJ Stander. (At least we presume so; no one has ever seen Stander pass the ball.) They thought wrong as opposition coach Warren Gatland pointed out after the match with barefaced hypocrisy.
“I think 85 per cent of that second half was off nine, off nine, off nine and Bundee Aki was effective in gain line,” said Gatland, referring to Schmidt’s low-risk, one-pass approach to rugby.
“They just played phase after phase after phase, see if they can get a penalty chance, kick the ball down the field and then try to squeeze you in your 22.”
Don’t knock it until you have tried it and Gatland pretty much wrote the manual on low-risk rugby. With rain forecast and Stander returned to No 8, Scotland can expect Ireland to stick to doing what they do best. How the Scots defend against the big ball carriers running off Murray/Sexton will go a long way toward determining Sunday’s outcome. Ireland are a little underpowered in comparison to the biggest beasts in the World Cup jungle but they usually kick sand in Scotland’s face.
Elsewhere, Ireland’s back line looks vulnerable after four injuries – RobbIe Henshaw, Rob Kearney, Joey Carbery and Keith Earls – but there is more than missing players behind Ireland’s sense of foreboding. They live in a shadow cast by a World Cup jinx that has blighted Ireland’s efforts on the biggest stage of all. The No 1ranked team in the world has never been beyond the quarter-finals and it hurts.
An early Scotland score will add to Irish jitters and the Scots may go old school in the wet weather and launch a few missiles at Ireland full-back Jordan Larmour; pictured, untouchable with the ball in hand but a lot less confident than Kearney or winger Andrew Conway under the bomb.
In the modern game wingers have to deal with more high balls than full-backs but, if Scotland get their tactics right, that should change tomorrow, especially as they have two willing chasers in Sam Johnson and Duncan Taylor.
The other area of concern for Ireland is the lineout where they lost six throws to England in that 57-15 shellacking at Twickenham.
They can’t afford to lose six throws to Scotland and they almost certainly won’t because the Scots almost never compete for the ball. Scotland’s pack has been trying to shake off its image as a soft touch because for years they were susceptible to being mauled into the dirt by any opposition eight who ate their spinach daily.
The team defending a lineout can either set themselves to defend the maul as soon as the jumper hits the ground or the defending team can throw one (or more) bodies into the air to challenge the throw. They cannot do both. Thus far Scotland’s coaches have opted not to compete, at least in their own half of the field, but given Rory Best’s inability to hit the board never mind the bull, that looks like a mistake.
Finally, both teams will be doing their utmost to see off the opposition stand-off. If Finn Russell is injured Scotland don’t have back-up on the bench so Greig Laidlaw would move to ten and Scotland would have their master tactician playing out of position.
Ireland do field a reserve ten, Connacht’s Jack Carty who knows a thing or two about wet weather rugby, but if their lodestar Jonny Sexton leaves the field early, and he is only a handshake away from his next injury, Ireland may just mark it down to their World Cup jinx and fold, despite holding most of the trump cards in that very useful pack.
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