If a week is a long time in politics, then it follows that six months is an aeon in the comparatively tumultuous world of sport.
Southern dominance of the 2015 Rugby World Cup meant that last year’s Six Nations tournament was greeted by a sense of futility, the annual event almost devalued by the varying degrees of humiliation suffered by Europe’s best.
England’s Grand Slam victory probably impressed few outside of England, not as a result of begrudgery but more the perception that they were merely the best of an average-to-bad lot. Then in June, England whitewashed the Australians and Ireland somehow conspired to not win a series in South Africa, notwithstanding a brilliantly resolute victory in the opening test in Cape Town. The good vibes continued throughout the early winter – Ireland’s victory in Chicago an obvious highpoint – and all six nations could point to progress against their southern counterparts. Now, on to a Six Nations tournament which, for the first time in years is wide open and not, as is often perceived, due to a lack of quality.
Once New Zealand finally fell, any right-thinking Irish fan jumped straight to Paddy’s weekend and a Grand Slam showdown with England. Even when the euphoria subsided this turned out not to be the most illogical logic going. However, as November came to a conclusion it was clear that the remaining Six Nations sides, with the notable and hard to decipher exception of Wales, had all progressed steadily.
Now, Ireland, England, Wales and possibly even Scotland go into the tournament with plausible designs on victory. For Scotland to make genuine progress this spring, Ireland need to be quietened on Saturday and for the Irish to deliver on the ambition born in November, well they need to do the obvious. We should preface this by stating that a Championship victory of any nature would be a fantastic achievement.
We’ve been lucky enough to come up in a generation where losing to Scotland was a rarity. You only need to go back to the late 80s and early 90s to understand the glee with which the Scottish viewed the Irish fixture. Not so today. Indeed, since the advent of the Six Nations Ireland hold the upper hand in Murrayfield with six wins to two. Ireland’s last defeat in the Scottish capital in 2012 came on Paddy Jackson’s ill-fated debut and a departure from the international game unbefitting of Ronan O’ Gara. However, Jackson has since blossomed into a fine out-half and O’ Gara’s extraordinary legacy won’t be tarnished by that dour afternoon.
Jackson has actually started six of Ireland’s last eight games but invariably his selection is viewed as a stop gap until the return of Johnathan Sexton. Now, obviously, everyone wants a fully fit Sexton available but his inability to complete a game may become an issue at some point. Joey Carberry, currently returning from injury, deputised brilliantly in November but it seems at this point in time Jackson is the clear understudy to Sexton. The Belfast man had a largely impressive summer in South Africa, was thrown into a free-for-all in the return game against New Zealand and then performed admirably when closing out the November series against Australia. Of course, his game is not free of errors but people often tend to forget that Jackson is only twenty-five and further that he has played behind an average Ulster pack this season.
The Irish eight should provide consistent possession on the front foot. Against Australia Jackson showed a greater willingness to attack the line and he does offer a genuine threat with his vision and passing. Sexton will return shortly but, at some point, Jackson needs to deliver consistent performances that force Joe Schmidt to consider his out-half selection somewhat of a dilemma.
Ireland’s starting pack is as good as any in the tournament – England enjoy greater depth – and it is here that they will hope to stifle the Scots. The surging Tadhg Furlong makes his first Six Nations start, while Rory Best, who endured a tricky beginning to his captaincy is playing the best rugby of his career. It is, however, in the back row that Ireland should enjoy likely dominance.
Ryan Wilson, Hamish Watson and Josh Strauss are fine players but Ireland’s three of Stander, O’ Brien and Heaslip comprise the best unit in the tournament. O’ Brien seems to start on reputation these days, given his litany of injuries and limited training time, but he continues to excel. Heaslip and Stander have both had exceptional seasons thus far and the lack of a traditional seven is circumvented by the versatility of the modern back row forward. In time, O’ Brien has acquired an outstanding ability to poach at rucks and Stander is supplementing his power carrying with improved ground skills of his own. Look at England too, where Chris Robshaw has enjoyed a rejuvenation on the blind side of the scrum.
Many of this Scottish side went to battle with Munster in a highly entertaining contest less than a month ago and a noticeable degree of antipathy has developed between those two sides. While Munster only have one starter in the pack, the always interesting bit of needle will be present. It’s unclear whether photos of Conor Murray’s standing leg have been plastered around the Scottish training facilities this week but their pack will assuredly shower Munster and Ireland’s lynchpin with plenty of attention. No doubt Schmidt will have brought these tactics, particularly those of the blatantly infringing Strauss, to referee, Roman Poite’s attention this week. Nonetheless, it isn’t something Ireland, or more importantly Murray, can dwell on for too long. You get the feeling Ireland’s forwards will be alert but Murray will be expected to take his shots too and Ireland rarely concede penalties for enforcer-type, retaliatory tactics.
Schmidt’s selection of Ian Keatley on the bench lays down a pretty clear marker for those plying their trade overseas, no doubt to the chagrin of Ian Madigan. The Bordeuax outhalf must have placed himself at three in the fly-half charts, and only because he’d chosen to seek better remuneration overseas, but Schmidt’s actions effectively close the international door on those who have chosen to leave the island. While Keatley is clearly not on the top rung anymore, it’s heartening to see the good guy, which by all accounts Keatley is, getting an unexpected reward just as his own career in Ireland comes to an end. Jackson is durable but should he go down then Schmidt will simply adhere to Bill Belichick’s ‘next man up’ mantra. Keatley can manage a game but the concern will be as to whether he can still do so at international level.
In the midst of the growing concerns over Sexton, the potentially explosive combination of Robbie Henshaw and Gary Ringrose starting together in green for the first time has been somewhat overlooked. Henshaw, at twenty-three, has assumed the mantle of veteran, while Ringrose has blossomed in his company and grown in stature, particularly in defence. While the majority clamoured for Ringrose’s Irish selection last year, mostly on the back of reports they were hearing from other people, Schmidt knew that the skill set was perhaps a little more advanced than the physical development. A year in the Pro 12 has definitely benefitted his all-round game but Alex Dunbar and Huw Jones will provide a formidable challenge on Saturday. D’Arcy and O’ Driscoll, the benchmark for Irish centres, oozed class going forward but it was in defence that they showed their true worth. Ringrose doesn’t need to try and be any other player and Saturday offers an opportunity to confirm his ascension to international class centre.
On a fine day, Scotland can do untold damage with the ball through Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and their powerful fliers outside, Sean Maitland and Tim Visser. However, like Simon Geoghegan in the 90s, the latter two in particular are probably going to spend much of the afternoon as cold, miserable onlookers. The forecast is bad and while Scotland have picked a powerful pack Ireland should control possession of the ball and with it the game. There’s an unlikely blend of youth and experience on the bench but expect the likes of Ultan Dillane and Josh Van Der Flier to add ballast when needed.
What has become clear is that Ireland’s success in the latter half of 2016 has, not unreasonably, raised expectations. And, Scotland will have viewed this game as an opportunity to confirm their progress in deed rather than word. Still, the feeling is that Ireland have a more fundamentally sound game plan and a stronger squad to boot. Ireland to win, Scotland the first to profit from the new bonus point system.
S.U.S. Prediction: Ireland by 6
Tips: (i) Ireland -5 (Evens)
(ii) Munster v Edinburgh 3/2/2017 – Munster @ 15/8