As the snow began to melt and normality returned, sport came back into our lives with a bang. In Brooklyn, Deontay Wilder’s savage knockout of Luis Ortiz brought the highly anticipated heavyweight fight with Anthony Joshua one step closer.
Meanwhile, in London, the findings of the British Parliament’s Digital, Cultural, Media and Sports Committee mean David ‘Marginal Gains’ Brailsford and his sanctimonious bull shit has hopefully come to an end. Incidentally, these marginal gains appear to be the alleged manipulation of the use of TUEs to provide Team Sky’s members with in-competition advantages over their rivals. Parallels could be drawn here with that thing athletes do where they illicitly take medicines that make them perform better than other athletes. The Queen might yet regret handing out that knighthood.
Coupled with the hapless F.A. chief executive Martin Glenn’s bracketing of The Star of David with ISIS and images of Robert Mugabe and it’s proven a less than fantastic week for English sporting administrators. And, any sort of a slip up in Paris on Saturday evening will punctuate what would be a fantastically tough week for English sport.
However, in the meantime, we need to mind our own house. The players return for the penultimate weekend of the Six Nations where, with a little help from France, Ireland could sew up the Six Nations Championship with a week to spare. Some quarters implied last week that if Ireland win the Championship on Saturday but fail to wrap up the Grand Slam the following week in a stadium where they haven’t tasted victory for eight years then an air of anti-climax would be attached. It’s obviously conjecture at this stage but perspective shouldn’t really be a defining aspect as to whether something is an objective success or not.
If Ireland lose at home to Scotland next week and then win in Twickenham would that really be a better way to win the championship? The last thing Ireland want is for an ebullient Scottish side, who they will face next autumn in Japan, to enjoy back to back victories over them so close to the World Cup. And so, with this in mind, perhaps it’s best to focus on Saturday’s visitors who have just enjoyed vital and hugely impressive victories over France and England respectively.
This year’s tournament has been the best in a number of years not least because each contest, with the exception of those involving the Italians, has provided extremely interesting style clashes and therefore compelling and tight contests. England employed brawn against Wales but still relied on two moments of magic to overcome the resolute visiting challenge. Ireland, however, thrived through similar means, regularly laying down the gauntlet to the Welsh up front and largely overpowering their opponents.
Meanwhile, the Scottish denied England’s robust ball carriers the opportunity to make inroads by deploying a more mobile, agile pack which caused destruction at the breakdown. Against Ireland, Wales saw virtually no ball, yet cut their hosts apart at will and would have probably won the game if they had patiently gone through the hands during the frantic end game.
Which is to say that all teams have displayed flaws in their game thus far and come St Patrick’s Day week, the consequences of Johnathan Sexton’s drop goal in Paris should be keenly felt.
Soccer has long since been recognised as the game where the sides possessed of superior technical can boss games by retaining the ball, tiring out the opposition and striking when the opportunity presents itself. However, possession in soccer is predicated almost entirely on technical ability.
Rugby is, of course, a possession-based game and without stressing the abundantly obvious – while then doing so – you can’t score without the ball. However, retention of possession in rugby poses manifest difficulties, not least because maintaining control of the ball requires far more physical effort and in a lazy and obvious comparison with soccer, quick turnover ball allows the opposition to counter quickly.
Teams have largely taken the more conservative approach of clearing their lines at the earliest opportunity though, unlike in the past, clearances are either smashed down the middle of the field or shortened somewhat to allow the chasing back three make an aerial challenge to retain possession. So while having the ball is important, where you have it is of greater import.
However, Ireland are led by a man in Joe Schmidt who possesses an unmatched obsession with retaining the ball. The catch of course, when in possession, is the risk of literally losing the ball or conceding penalties at the breakdown. And it is thus that Schmidt has coached his players, particularly the back row in its various combinations, to be peerless in the tackle area. Saturday’s contest with Scotland is intriguing as the visitors were so dominant against England at the breakdown, an area where Ireland have been the tournament’s standard bearers thus far.
Ireland are genuinely enjoying near-Barcelona like levels of possession and the difficulty in maintaining these levels cannot be overstated. So, will the Scottish trio of Hamish Watson, John Barclay and Ryan Wilson, rightly lauded after their historic win over Eddie Jones’s side, be able to succeed where the much-touted Josh Navidi and Aaron Shingler couldn’t?
Scotland figured very quickly that Nigel Owens was going to reward the tackler a fortnight ago and while England could grumble, they displayed a clear inability to respond in-game. Barclay and Watson produced probably their best performances in a Scotland jersey securing vital turnover penalties and generally proving a thorn in the English back row’s lumbering sides, negating the latter’s size with superior speed and technique.
Ireland’s pack will provide a markedly different challenge for the Scottish and it would be a great surprise if they were able to create anywhere near the same frenzy at the breakdown. The concern of course, from an Irish perspective and based on numerous reviews of the Welsh game, is that the Scottish may only require a limited but quick supply of ball to wreak havoc out wide.
Last year in Edinburgh, Scotland made attacking look laughably easy in the first half, with the Irish defence retreating continually, allowing their hosts to make huge gains and putting the defensive line on the back foot. There were almost shades of the passiveness which prompted the World Cup downfall. Ireland were admittedly without their lynchpin at ten that day but it would be remiss of us to ignore the potential pitfalls that await if Scotland enjoy early possession and Ireland fail to repair the sometimes gaping hole so evident in the outside defensive channel.
The revolving door at number thirteen welcomes in perhaps the most lauded centre in Irish rugby in Garry Ringrose, who to date has endured a season stultified by injuries to shoulder and ankle. Ringrose is one of those players who despite his absence and lack of any real form pre-injury, you would back to slot back into the Irish system with relative ease.
Before Jordan Larmour, there was the Ringrose hype-train and the latter’s development into a truly top quality centre has only been delayed by this injury-interrupted season. There have been flashes in recent seasons, no more so than as against Clermont last April, of a truly outstanding talent but an injury-free run will be vital to allow the twenty-three-year-old force his way into a suddenly crowded Irish midfield. As is often the case though, an injury is the best friend of the next man up and with Chris Farrell’s season so cruelly ended, Bundee Aki will combine with his third partner of the spring. If Ringrose does click with Aki, particularly defensively, then perversely given the length of his absence, he has a huge opportunity to take tentative rights to the Irish thirteen jersey.
That Aki has swiftly become the rock in midfield owes to both his impressive adaptation to the Irish system and the influential presence of Johnny Sexton on his inside. It has been in the outside channels that errors have occurred and the wide men, particularly Jacob Stockdale, will have to trust their inside defenders. If there is even a hint of uncertainty, Scotland will pounce, with one of the tournament’s star performers, Huw Jones, offering a persistent threat with ball in hand. Outside Jones, Lions Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour are due big attacking performances so if Ireland’s effort to cut ball off at the source fails, then there’d best be no uncertainty out wide.
Though Andrew Porter excelled against Scotland, there is no question that the return of Tadhg Furlong strengthens Ireland’s powerful forward unit. And while some eyebrows may have been raised by Iain Henderson’s selection among the replacements, his presence serves to strengthen a bench whose arrival has often led to chaotic periods where Ireland have struggled mightily, particularly in defence. The Bench Mob they are not.
It’s unclear how long Furlong will last though he is a consistent 70-minute player and there is no way he would be risked if his hamstring hasn’t healed fully. Porter has been outstanding but Furlong is a Lion, has been a mainstay for almost two years now and offers an excellent link between backs and forwards. As good as Scotland were against the English, there is a sense that Ireland can dominate this pack physically, all without losing any of the ferocious aggression and intensity at the breakdown. If Scotland don’t have much ball and particularly if Ireland don’t concede quick turnover ball, then it’s hard to see where the visitors will cause the damage.
Having said this, there is no way Schmidt will direct his team to keep it tight at all costs and there has been plenty of evidence as provided by Teddy Thomas and a host of Welshman that the Scottish are far from impervious out wide. Ireland won’t be inviting a shoot-out but they will have absolute confidence in themselves to break this Scottish line. And given all the plaudits that have been laid at the Scottish feet this week, Ireland’s back three will be keen to show they’re not just there to contest kicks and hit rucks.
Ultimately, when it comes down to it, Ireland have the best half-back pairing in the tournament against a decent scrum half and a mercurial ten. Russell may have provided the pass of the year a fortnight ago but his bag is invariably mixed and until such time as he displays consistency – which sadly trumps off-the-cuff play – Scotland cannot be favoured in a match like this.
It’s not quite the scorched earth policy but deny Scotland the ball and Ireland will win. Sure, Scotland thrilled against England but, for now, don’t believe the hype.
S.U.S. Prediction – Ireland by 12
Tips: (i) Garry Ringrose MOTM @ 16/1
(ii) Jordan Larmour Last Tryscorer @ 10/1