Scotland v Ireland preview: visitors’ power could be key in tight contest

Hosts must avoid an arm-wrestle in order to break recent losing streak against Celtic cousins

Jamie Ritchie will have his work cut-out against a powerful Irish back-row. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Jamie Ritchie will have his work cut-out against a powerful Irish back-row. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

IT was another life and I was working for Barings International Investment Management, just before Nick Leeson holed the ancient bank below the waterline. The head of the department, a knight of the realm no less, quizzed a junior member of the team as to his preferred investment strategy? 

“I’d fill my boots,” the reply came from the confidence of youth. Everyone else knew what was coming next but it hadn’t occurred to the young fella that he might be asked for the reasoning behind his decision.

“I don’t know,” he stammered, “I feel it in my waters.”


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I am fast coming round to his way of thinking. You try and take a forensic look at the evidence, tackle completions, metres made, execution percentage, discipline etc etc and come to a rational conclusion about who will win a Six Nations Test only to get blindsided by events. Two red cards gifted two games to Wales before two calls against England by a barking mad French referee, allied to hopeless ill-discipline from the men in white, gifted Wales their third successive win.

Sorry, but Wales are the worst of the home nations and never mind the fact that they are one step away from the Grand Slam. The gods have not just smiled on the men in red, they have given them the sort of smacker on the lips that would get you arrested these days without written permission signed in triplicate.

Pascal Gaüzère earned himself the Freedom of Cardiff but the Frenchman will find himself whistling the Junior Colts B-team for the foreseeable future if there is any justice. I have always been a little wary of unconscious bias but Gauzere’s calls were so bad that England’s combustible captain Owen Farrell actually retained his composure remarkably well in the circumstances.

But there is another reason why looking at past performance is no good guide to Sunday afternoon’s encounter between Scotland and Ireland at Murrayfield. With every mistake caught on video, teams work hard to rectify mistakes from the last outing before they take to the field again. Generals always fight the last war and pundits like me do something similar.

It was three penalties in quick succession, two of which went against Gary Graham, immediately before the break that gave Wales the platform to get back into the game against Scotland so you can bet your mortgage that Gregor Townsend will have been hammering home the need for discipline all week.

 

If Scotland are a team in transition then Ireland are a team that refuses to let go some old favourites who, by rights, should be chewing the cud and shouting at the television like the rest of us.

If Jonny Sexton was untouchable for his brilliance some years back the veteran outhalf is now untouchable because some body part will fall off if the veteran sneezes suddenly. Scotland will target him just as Ireland will attempt to close down his opposite number Finn Russell.

The similarities between the two teams go deeper than two decent 10s, big foreign lumps on the left wing in Duhan van der Merwe for Scotland and James Lowe for the hosts, good aerial men opposite them in Sean Maitland and Keith Earls, but there are two areas of the team sheet where Ireland have an edge.

Robbie Henshaw and Gary Ringrose are potentially a Lions Test combo in waiting and are up against two Scots centres who are unlikely to feature against the Bokke this summer.

Ireland with their preferred wrap around plays will attempt to isolate Scotland’s inside centre Sam Johnson because the Aussie is short a yard of pace to compete at this rarefied level.

His partner Chris Harris remains better in defence than attack and Scotland are having to work awful hard for every five pointer they score … just three touchdowns in the opening two games while enjoying the lions’ share of possession (62% over the course).

But it is in the backrow that there seems to be the biggest discrepancy in firepower. The Irish trio are big beasts, every one of them, including their 6ft 5ins openside Will Connors, against three relatively lightweight Scots.

CJ Stander has played one more game than Matt Fagerson so he has made more carries than the Scot but the big Saffa also averages 4.6 metres per carry against 3.6 for Fagerson. It isn’t much but small margins, Townsend never tires of telling us, can prove vital.

Moreover, the Irish back-row is big but balanced. Tadhg Beirne may be a lock by training but the Munsterman is a genuine option at six, topping the turnover rankings in this Championship season with five to his name. At seven, Connors is highly rated tackler and Strander is an old fashioned bruiser of a ball carrier the likes of which Scotland simply don’t have.

This is not to say that Fagerson/Ritchie/Watson trio is bad. It isn’t. They are all good/great players but none of them are particularly big men which makes a difference on both sides of the ball.

 

Scotland are already without Zander Fagerson, one of their better ball carriers, and none of the back-row boast the bulk to guarantee getting the Scots on the front with foot ball in hand.

In defence, a slight breakaway trio means that most of the heavy lifting when defending the Scotland try-line falls upon the front five and, if Ireland commands high field position for concerted periods of time, that is going to take its toll in fatigue. Just ask Glasgow who conceded three close range tries to the Ospreys’ forwards on Friday night while still finding a way to win.

Ireland will feel that they can win an arm wrestle if only the Scots can be persuaded to give them one.

Scotland come off a wasted opportunity against Wales followed by a bye weekend and a French fiasco that can only have sharpened their appetite to make things right. They will be hungry.

But Ireland have won nine of the last ten meetings between these two teams so they have an edge in the psychology department and also in two key areas on the field. I fancy they may have just enough oomph in the tight exchanges to see off a spirited Scottish challenge.

I feel it in my waters.


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About Iain Morrison 39 Articles
Iain was capped 15 times for Scotland at openside flanker between his debut against Ireland during the 1993 Six Nations and his final match against New Zealand at the 1995 World Cup in South Africa. He was twice a Cambridge ‘Blue’ and played his entire club career with London Scottish (being inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame in 2016). Iain is a lifelong member of Linlithgow Rugby Club. After hanging up his boots, he became rugby correspondent for The Sunday Herald, before moving to The Scotland on Sunday for 16 years, and he has also guest written for various other publications.

1 Comment

  1. “The sort of smacker on the lips that would get you arrested these days without written permission signed in triplicate.”

    Please can we have our rugby opinion pieces without obnoxious jokes about sexual consent? Particularly ill-judged given current events.

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