Greig Laidlaw claims Johnny Sexton's absence could be vital as Scots plan to target 'lynchpin' Conor Murray
If Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw is right, the loss of visiting playmaker Johnny Sexton could be crucial to the outcome of Scotland’s game with Ireland at Murrayfield in Saturday’s Six Nations opener. The Leinster fly-half has been struggling with a calf injury and was ruled out on Tuesday, along with flanker Peter O’Mahony, while wing Andrew Trimble remains a serious doubt.
“Sexton being out does make a little bit of difference if I’m being honest,” said Laidlaw. “I think Ireland will miss him because he’s a quality player, great goalkicker and he drives their attack. He’s a key driver in that team alongside Murray, and while they don’t play provincially together they do have a strong combination when they link up with Ireland. Obviously, they have a good understanding and you can see Jonny is really a lynchpin in that team, so whoever comes in has got a big job to do.”
Ulsterman Paddy Jackson is now likely to start for Ireland at Murrayfield, while Munster’s reserve fly-half Ian Keatley linked up with the squad as cover this week. Rory Scannell, Munster’s uncapped back, can also play No 10 and is in the squad.
Scotland backs coach Jason O’Halloran had laid out a gameplan that revolves around stopping Ireland at source by targeting their half-backs. The New Zealander had identified Sexton’s loop play as one of Ireland’s key moves, and although Jackson can also run the same plays, the evidence of Ireland’s win over South Africa, when Jackson stepped in for Sexton, is that the Leinsterman’s absence will blunt Ireland’s slick midfield moves.
The other part of the approach outlined by O’Halloran included harrying Sexton’s erstwhile halfback partner Conor Murray so that the Ireland scrum-half is unable to launch the accurate kicks which did so much damage to Scotland in Dublin last year, and which were the key to Munster’s recent Champions Cup win over Glasgow at Scotstoun.
“The aerial game is a key area in the match, so we’ve spent a lot of time on that,” said Laidlaw. “It’s an individual skill, so the boys have been hammering into it at the beginning and at the end of sessions. We looked at the game over in Dublin last year and we certainly lost that aerial battle.
“We looked at Glasgow-Munster a few weeks ago and Munster won a lot of ball back in the air, so it’s a big part of the game and we need to win our fair share of balls back.”
Last season, Scotland’s close attention to Murray led to a stray kick which produced a try and a late chargedown which almost added a second, so it is certainly a strategy that can work. However, Murray reacted badly when Glasgow targeted his standing leg in a bid to put him off his stride in a recent Champions Cup tie at Scotstoun, the scrum-half virtually accusing the Warriors of deliberately going out to hurt him. Laidlaw defended Glasgow and suggested Scotland would follow a similar tack in an effort to disrupt Murray.
“Glasgow did everything within the rules of the game,” said the Scotland captain. “Conor Murray is a brilliant player, and certainly one of the best half-backs probably in the world – he’s got a strong kicking game, is a strong runner, and a big bloke for a nine.
“He’s a good player who has a good temperament on the whole and has been one of the lynchpins for Ireland and for Munster over the last few years, so, of course, he is always going to get that [be a target] as a nine. Will we be putting pressure on Murray? Sure we will. He is not going to come to Murrayfield and get an armchair ride.”
Laidlaw said that Scotland had learnt a great deal from studying Ireland’s two autumn games against the All Blacks, and had incorporated those lessons into their planning. “They were interesting games and there was a clear reason why Ireland won the first, which was because New Zealand’s error count was so high,” he said. “They made a lot of mistakes in the game, missed a lot of line-outs and didn’t give themselves a platform to launch attacks into the game. The two key differences in the second match were that they reduced their error count and were much more aggressive in defence. We can take some stuff, some learnings out of that.”
As Scotland have found out against Ireland recently, knowing how to stop Ireland is only half of the solution; it is the execution that counts.