Thursday 23 February 2017

No room for risks in Scottish bear-pit

Eddie O'Sullivan

"Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it" -- Macbeth

Old Willie Shakespeare never ventured down Edinburgh's 'Royal Mile' the day of a Six Nations game, but I suspect he'd have understood the treachery of the local bonhomie.

The Scottish capital entertains a rugby crowd like no other city and a day spent lapping up its charms has sent many a team blundering into Murrayfield like innocent peasants to the coliseum.

I believe Shakespeare wrote 37 plays, one less than the record number of points Scotland have scored against Ireland in international rugby, a 28-point thumping in '97 and one more than our total when obliterating the Scots by a record 30 points in 2003.

Now how, you might well ask, to explain a 58 points turnaround in six years? Work it out and you work out the riddle that is Scotland.

Macbeth is believed by some to be a cursed work and therefore referred to, slightly disparagingly, by Shakespearean scholars as "the Scottish play." But, for 19 years up to that victory in '03, the curse was unequivocally on Ireland.

We couldn't buy a break at Murrayfield and, despite the routine expectation that we could beat what usually looked benign opposition, we managed just a solitary Dublin victory (and one draw) during the 13 championship seasons between '89 and '01 -- an extraordinary statistic given that the Scots were anything but world-beaters during that period.

The game in '03 was my first time coaching Ireland for a Test match in Scotland. It was a Sunday fixture, but I insisted on the team travelling over on the Thursday to, if for nothing else, to confront this fear of Murrayfield. We stayed, as always, in the Balmoral Hotel at the bottom of Princes' Street and I encouraged the players to go out and walk the city, to embrace the brewing atmosphere.

Trouble was, Ireland hadn't won there since the 'Give-it-a-lash' Triple Crown year of Mick Doyle's team in '85 and, from the seed of repetitive defeat, grew a sense of communal foreboding.

This time, we were determined to go to battle on the front foot. We left a dummy set of line-out calls in a gym we were using, taking great pleasure in the subsequent denials of the caretaker that anything had been found.

Needless to say, the calls had been ferried instantly to Ian McGeechan and the Scots' attempts to defend against our line-out the following day made for hilarious viewing.

I remember being quite animated in my team-talk beforehand, asking the players if there was a single person in the Scottish side that they should, logically, fear. There wasn't.

We blew them off the pitch that day and would never actually lose a Championship game to Scotland on my watch. Between '02 and '09, Ireland won eight consecutive Six Nations games against the Scots, heavily outscoring them by an average of 31-14. Quite startling in the context of what had gone before.

ignominious

But that run came to an ignominious end at Croke Park last March as Ireland let a Triple Crown slip from their grasp.

I have always felt that -- as rugby countries -- we see a lot of ourselves in one another. During the 90s, we were certainly cut from the same cloth, 'Celtic brothers in arms' you could say, thriving on the underdog tag and both eminently capable of upsetting any opposition in one-off situations. On the occasions we won, we celebrated as we might today if the IMF wrote off the national debt.

But there was a parting of the ways after '02, as Ireland stretched away to a level well beyond Scotland. And maybe that's what made last year's defeat in Croke Park so hard to digest. We had pretty much forgotten what it was like to lose to them. In a sense, Scotland's most recent history captures their inconsistencies in microcosm.

They ambushed South Africa last November, but struggled to beat Samoa. Then, after a decent Six Nations opening day performance in Paris, their loss to Wales a week later came off one of their worst displays during Andy Robinson's tenure.

In fact, that performance was so bad, the Scottish players convened a behind-closed-doors team meeting to discuss the debacle. Nevertheless, Robinson has reacted by making seven changes to the Scottish team for tomorrow.

This probably isn't good news for Ireland. The Scots will see tomorrow's game as an opportunity to save their season. And, being on home turf, they will firmly believe they can pull it off. I certainly can't imagine Ireland rolling into Edinburgh with any sense of a strut in their step.

What would concern me is that the post mortem for that Triple Crown loss last year revealed pretty identical flaws to those that have been so painfully documented after this year's games with Italy and France. Too many errors and too many penalties.

Ireland look low on confidence right now. We certainly have the skill-set for the expansive gameplan preferred by management, but problems emerge when you force the issue.

pragmatism

Tomorrow, the mantra must be pragmatism over progression. It may sound negative, but we've just got to be smarter in our use of the ball.

You can't play the run and gun game at all costs and I don't doubt that Declan Kidney will be mindful that Ireland have not lost in consecutive years to Scotland since the 90s.

All of this brings pressure, so where we run and when we run will be critical this time. On that basis, it is no real surprise that Ronan O'Gara is back to steady the ship. His kicking game is world class and he understands better than anybody where and when to apply the pressure points.

With his kicking skills, dominating field position should not be a problem. We should be pinning the Scots in their own half and making sure that whatever risks we take, we take them a long way from our own goal-line.

Discipline is clearly going to be a critical factor, too, and, thus far, this has been an area of concern for Ireland.

All in all, I think we will see a more balanced mix of running and kicking from Ireland. The set-piece held its own against France, but I'm disappointed that Stephen Ferris is missing again as we remain short on jumpers out of touch. The Scots have a big, physical pack and I fear we will struggle to put any pressure on their throw.

Frankly, little things will make the difference between winning and losing here. Ireland's recent error count and their penchant for conceding penalties are big worries against a Scottish team that will be on a mission to save its Six Nations campaign.

If we don't perform with a lot more efficiency and pragmatism than what we've seen so far, don't be at all surprised to find the thistle has a serpent underneath.

Irish Independent

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