DAVID BARNES in TOKYO
SCOTLAND defence coach Matt Taylor has cranked up the tension levels ahead of tomorrow morning’s eagerly anticipated World Cup opener against Ireland at the Yokohama International Stadium in Japan [kick-off: 8.45am], by stating that his team will look to ‘smash’ Ireland stand-off Johnny Sexton at every opportunity.
Sexton is a highly-strung character on the pitch, who is never shy about making his views known to the ref if he feels his team has been hard done by, and especially if he feels he has been rough-housed.
He also has history with Scotland. After the last meeting between the two sides, at Murrayfield during the most recent Six Nations, he lasted only 23 minutes before retiring injured. Afterwards, the Ireland camp complained that their man had been continually hit after the ball was gone.
An alternative view is that Sexton is one of the best in the business at taking the ball to the line to commit defenders before releasing his team-mates. It is an established tactic which inevitably results in a few hard shoulders, so it is a bit rich complain because their man has successfully achieved what he set out to do. That’s especially the case as Ireland are hardly angels themselves, with Scotland’s key man Stuart Hogg being invalided out of the remainder of the Six Nations in that game by an unpunished late challenge from Peter O’Mahony.
Taylor has now made it clear what he thinks of Ireland’s complaints, and he was keen to let it be known that the Scots would not be backing off the opposition’s chief playmaker this weekend.
“We did a good a job on him [during the Six Nations] and I think a lot of teams took a leaf out of our book in terms of getting up and trying to smash him,” he said. “He’s a brave player, he plays it right to the line. If he plays it right to the line we have to have the ability to smash people so that is what we are having to do. They’ve kept him a bit wrapped in cotton wool the last period because he has taken a lot of hits and knocks. So we will be trying to do that and I am sure they will be trying to do that to Finn [Russell] as well.”
“We are trying to put a lot of pressure on him. We thought we did a reasonably good job at putting pressure on him last time we played as well too, so that is going to be an objective of ours.”
Ireland came out on top in that match back in February (as they have done in six of the last seven meetings between the two sides), but Taylor says Scotland showed enough to believe that they can upset the world’s top ranked team this time round.
“We were really frustrated because we thought we did a lot of good things, particularly in defence, but one loose pass and another well worked move by them took it away from us,” he said. “The key is that they score a lot of their tries from the first three phases from set-piece, so we just have to make sure we’re on our feet, we’re alive and looking for those funny plays.
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“We’re up against a very good side but I think we’ve had really good training since we’ve got here and we’re really looking forward to getting stuck into the Irish.
“It’s about winning the key moments isn’t it? If there is a bounce of the ball, we just need to be on the right side of it. We’ve got to do our systems well in attack and defence. We’re a good side too, confident in our ability and looking forward to showing it.”
Scotland will have to be at their best in almost every area of the game if they are to succeed. Ireland boast a formidable set-piece, are powerful around ruck and maul, have a very well-drilled defence and a smart kicking game.
From Taylor’s point of view, the biggest concern is their gamesmanship and ability to bend the rules to get an edge, so he called upon referee Wayne Barnes to be vigilant.
“They do have a habit of holding onto people in and around rucks, so we just need to alert the referee to that before the game,” he said. “I think if they get away with that then it’s hard to defend.”
In fairness, every team in international rugby is up to something – and the Scots are not adverse to a bit of skulduggery of their own at the breakdown, either.
While there is no doubting that this is a huge match, the beauty of it from a Scottish perspective is that Scotland can afford to lose, as long as they can take positives away from their performance. It might not be an outcome they are willing to countenance at this stage, but deep down they know it would not be a disaster.
“We are going out there to win it,” insisted Taylor. “We are going out there to build momentum. If we lose, we have to park that and move on. We are out to win every game and if you do that you build that feel-good factor. We are confident and we have a really good feeling and hopefully that feeling will come out during the game. But we know how tough a job it is going to be.”