Tuesday 25 April 2017

Time for Ireland to step up to another level

Captain Best calls on squad to improve on their November efforts as they look to get Grand Slam bid off to a winning start

Garry Ringrose goes through his paces during yesterday's Captain's Run Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Garry Ringrose goes through his paces during yesterday's Captain's Run Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

The return of Trainspotting to the silver screen has Edinburgh choosing nostalgia for the 1990s, a time when the Scottish-Irish rugby relationship was a one-way street.

Rugby doesn't feature in the original as it focuses in on the grittier side of the Scottish capital than the one the Irish fans descending this weekend will see, but the past players and scribes in this part of the world are beginning to envisage the return of the good old days when Scotland were a force.

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Back when Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie were choosing life, Murrayfield was Ireland's unhappiest hunting grounds. From 1987 to 2003, they endured nine successive defeats at this venue.

Nowadays, the tide has firmly turned in Ireland's favour but rarely in recent times have the Scots been approaching the Six Nations as bullish.

Every year there's a bit of talk about a Scottish revival, but this year there is backbone to it.

Glasgow Warriors are enjoying a fine season, while departing head coach Vern Cotter has turned the national side into a competitive team who have twice pushed Australia close in recent meetings.

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Click here to view full-size graphic

They are talking the talk too and there is an abiding sense this week that these groups of Irish and Scottish players are not too fond of one another, which just adds to the spice.

Today, a rivalry that simmered during last year's Six Nations and came to the boil during the Champions Cup meetings between Munster and Glasgow may just spill over at Murrayfield.

A gloomy weather forecast won't help matters as the two sides put their seasonal ambitions on the line on the opening day.

On one side are the team being backed by many to win the title, on the other the dark horses who have talked themselves into a breakthrough on the eve of their coach's final season.

Mission

Ireland's mission is to steer their way unscathed into the final weekend when they welcome champions England to Dublin.

Scotland's is to get a win today that would act as a springboard for their campaign.

Joe Schmidt's side come into the tournament buoyed by a successful November in which they went toe to toe with the world's best and came out about even.

Victory over the All Blacks in Chicago may not have impressed Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw too much - he put it down to New Zealand's mistakes rather than Ireland's endeavour - but it should fill Schmidt and his players with belief as they begin the task of regaining the title they relinquished to England last season.

The win over New Zealand was part of a triple crown of Southern Hemisphere scalps in 2016 that has set tongues wagging in the world of punditry.

The bookmakers are sticking with England as pre-tournament favourites, but many former players are tipping the Irish to pip Eddie Jones' side at the post.

First, they must overcome the significant challenge posed by this Scottish team who, if nothing else, are promising to bring hell-fire on home soil.

"Coming to Murrayfield, we know Scotland will come out and there will be a lot of emotion. One of the great things in world rugby is the playing of Flower of Scotland and the emotion that evokes in them," said Rory Best after taking his team on their Captain's Run at Murrayfield yesterday.

"We need to make sure that we don't lose those early battles, we don't lose those moments early in the game because they are more emotionally charged than us.

"We have to make sure that we appreciate we're playing for Ireland, we're pulling on a green jersey and, look, we have to be 100pc disciplined but we also can't be afraid to let out a little emotion ourselves."

Above all else, discipline will be key as Ireland look to get on referee Romain Poite's good side and stay there for 80 minutes as they did throughout November when they came out with favourable penalty counts on a weekly basis.

They will also want to tighten up defensively after conceding an average of 2.7 tries a game since Andy Farrell's tenure as defence coach began. Schmidt reckons the former England international has now fully bedded in and wants more from the rearguard.

They will trust their set-piece to function well and provide stability for Conor Murray and Paddy Jackson to run the show.

Rarely has so much focus centred on one player in the build-up to a game, but the world-class Murray merits the attention.

He is enjoying a season of consistent excellence and his importance to Ireland is reflected in how often his name comes up for discussion in the build-up.

With Johnny Sexton out, his regular half-back partner is even more vital. Ireland will need to protect him.

Scotland clearly think they know what to expect from Schmidt's side.

"Ireland are very good at controlling possession, they make it very difficult for you to play and when they do get the ball they put maximum pressure on you," said Scotland forwards coach Nathan Hines, who played under Schmidt for Leinster.

"Joe is very astute tactically and he'll be looking for weaknesses in what we do.

"They'll be highly organised and we have to make sure we look after our own possession, but not just that - to not be forced into kicking or making decisions that are not ideal for us.

"While Johnny is a bit of a loss I don't think it's going to make our job any easier. Paddy's a quality player and I think that he'll be executing with the same amount of accuracy as Johnny."

That the Ireland management rate this Scottish side is no surprise given Schmidt's close friendship with and respect for Cotter, but they have retained the upper hand in this fixture since the New Zealander took over in 2013 and will be confident of keeping that run going.

For all that the Scots have game-breakers from No.10 out, the Irish forwards look far stronger than the home pack.

Jonny Gray aside, it's difficult to see any of the home eight edging their opposite numbers in a Lions selection battle.

When he was asked for his opinion on the game earlier this week, Brian O'Driscoll chose not to focus on his traditional area of expertise, instead insisting that the game will be decided in the tight exchanges up front.

So, rather than the head-to-head between exciting centres Huw Jones and Garry Ringrose or the one-to-one battle as Simon Zebo takes on Tommy Seymour, the forwards will win this one.

Robbie Henshaw's ability to win collisions and get over the gain-line will help, as will the Irish kick-chase game that will look to put pressure on a talented home back-three who will capitalise on any inaccuracy.

At the coalface, Ireland look ready. Although they lack experience on their bench, where Niall Scannell is set to win his first cap and John Ryan his second, the front-five combination of Best, Tadhg Furlong and Jack McGrath supported by Devin Toner and Iain Henderson looks strong.

With the back-row combination of CJ Stander, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip looking nicely balanced and ready to take the game to the hosts with huge intensity, there is a sense of confidence in what the men in green can do.

Yet come kick-off, the surety goes out the window.

Injury to either Murray or Jackson severely destabilises the team, while Poite's interpretation of the zero tolerance on high tackles will have an influence.

Cian Healy and Tommy Bowe aside, there is an inexperienced look to the bench but a hallmark of this team since mid-way through the last Six Nations has been how young players have stepped in and stepped up when asked.

"We've built a big squad," Best said. "But now is the time to see if boys can step up.

"We talk about the squad, and to lose a player like Johnny, even early in the week, but can Paddy step up and be better than he's been for Ireland?

"That's what it's going to take and that's what the whole idea of the squad is, that guys who think they're maybe not going to play don't relax and keep pushing on.

"Jacko has done that from what I can see but ultimately it'll be in the Test match (where he proves it).

"You can feel the nervous energy around the place and people don't know what to be up to, but obviously coupled with that there is fear - you have to come to places like this and if you don't have that little bit of fear, you're probably not in a good place.

"For us it's definitely a combination of it all and the biggest thing is just excitement, this is a fantastic Championship and I've loved playing in every game so far - hopefully there's still a few more to come."

Those sentiments will be echoed by fans all over Ireland as they look forward to the Six Nations far more than they did a year ago.

"We stood still a little bit last year in the championship and we have to make sure that all the work we put in to make it a good autumn just gone, we push on with that," Best added.

"The only way we can make sure we push on from that is to look back and say, 'We did this well and that well, we didn't do that so well', that's what we need to improve on and to keep pushing forward.

"I keep saying Scotland in Murrayfield is a really, really tough place to start, but what a way to see if we can pick up from where we left off and improve.

"We are going to have to improve on the performances we produced last November."

If they do, then despite their own progression Scotland won't live with Ireland, who simply have too much power in their pack. If they start with intensity and take their chances, they'll be on their way to a first victory of the campaign.

Choose a winning start to the Six Nations. Choose Ireland.

Irish Independent

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