Thursday 8 December 2016

Tony Ward: Irish to prevail but a more competitive Scotland is massive for tournament

Days of Tartan Army fighting with Italy for Wooden Spoon are over - and that's a plus for everyone

Published 19/03/2016 | 02:30

Paul O’Connell in action for Ireland against Scotland last year
Paul O’Connell in action for Ireland against Scotland last year
Ireland's Jonathan Sexton recieves medical attention after picking up an injury against Italy

Take the Millennium International out of the equation and I think it's worth recording that between 1986 (my own last game against the Scots) and 2000 (Ronan O'Gara's first) Ireland couldn't buy a win over the Celtic cousins with whom we were for so long joined at the hip. That equates to 14 internationals between the countries - 13 to the thistle with one drawn.

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The onset of the golden generation - O'Gara, Peter Stringer, the Bull Hayes et al - saw a complete reversal with Ireland winning eight of the next nine. I think it worth highlighting because save for Glasgow taking last year's Pro12 title (having threatened for two years before), the perception is that Scotland, much like Italy, is a banker international.

Sure they might occasionally rattle our cage but in the final analysis the Championship Spoon is for the Azzurri and Tartan armies to share.

Well, think again. The Scots under Vern Cotter are on the road back to respectability and a Six Nations aspiration way beyond finishing ahead of the Italians. Yes, they have still to make a meaningful mark on the jewel in the northern hemisphere crown as just five finishes outside of the bottom two this century adequately reflects.

By contrast, since the Five Nations became Six in 2000 only twice have we finished outside of the top three. While professionalism has been good for Irish rugby at the highest levels, the Scots have struggled to fully embrace the change. Yet back in the Corinthian days the IRFU and SRU were considered, with very good reason, conjoined twins.

Conservatism was rife with both Celtic Unions dragged kicking and screaming into the professional age. Whereas we embraced it with the provinces fitting snugly into place, between Districts and Super Districts the game in the heartland of Scottish rugby - the Borders - took a drilling.

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For those of us brought up on that powerful Scottish game running parallel to our own, we yearn for a strong Scottish presence. The Six Nations needs Scottish Rugby challenging for Triple Crowns, Grand Slams and Championships. Do I want Greg Laidlaw and company to make it three wins in a row today? Of course not but should they deservedly come out on top in a game with all the ingredients to be a belter, then it has to be good for Six Nations rugby going forward.

In relation to this, the 131st clash between the sides, with the visitors out in front on 65 wins to 58 despite our decisive run of success in more recent times, they are teams picked along largely predictable lines when factoring in injury and the influential character of Cotter alluded to by his former assistant Joe Schmidt in a revealing interview yesterday.

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The key line referred to "learning so many things from him (Cotter), about trying to grow the key leaders in a team, if you're going to have a strong decision-making group on the pitch".

Certainly that has been the Schmidt trademark since inheriting Ireland - whatever about Leinster where the strong-willed essential personalities were already in place.

I still firmly believe the decision not to trial Jared Payne at full-back against the Italians, thereby providing Stuart McCloskey with a second opportunity alongside Robbie Henshaw, represented an opportunity lost but that is now done and dusted and as Schmidt suggested (with typically refreshing honesty in relation to Tommy O'Donnell's selection over Josh van der Flier) "these are decisions that you make and I'd be the first to admit that I know we don't get them right all the time but we try to and we try to reflect and think about what the team need".

I cannot emphasise enough how central that point is in squad selection given he and his management team are at the heart of preparations using every scrap of up-to-date information available. No sporting manager will ever please all of the punters all of the time but one area in which I will defend the current Irish coach to the hilt is that in making any decision - however much we might disagree - there is a measured rationale to it.

Given where and with whom he honed his trade, it makes today's duel all the more fascinating, particularly so given it is undoubtedly a Scottish team on the rise. To that end Cotter has chosen pragmatically when replacing the injured Johnny Gray with Tim Swinson, who will be making his fifth appearance in this Six Nations but first from the start.

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Not unlike Schmidt's consistent preference for Ian Madigan over Paddy Jackson, Cotter opts for the more reliable Duncan Weir over the free-spirited Peter Horne who did so well when coming on for Finn Russell last week.

I guess the selection that surprises somewhat is Ryan Wilson starting at No 8 in place of Josh Strauss. Strauss is their CJ Stander so to speak. That said, Wilson in between the Johns - Hardie and Barclay - was the commanding back-row in Rome three weeks ago.

Barclay and Hardie are masters at slowing possession which points to the selection of the more robust O'Donnell over Van der Flier for the battle of the breakdown which could ultimately determine the outcome today.

Van der Flier is unquestionably the quicker to the tackle area and point of contact but O'Donnell - a la Sean O'Brien - is more effective over the ball and in the squeeze to free it up (or indeed slow it down as the case may be).

I won't labour the point over Payne at 15 any more other than owning up to the Simon Zebo/Stuart Hogg head-to-head whetting the appetite for inventive rugby. The more we see the respective full-backs with ball in hand the better for everybody - players and spectators alike. And yes even coaches too.

Rationale

I repeat what I said too about Sean Cronin after last week's impact tour de force. The Leinster hooker is for me Lions Test material. And yet I get the rationale behind Richardt Strauss, Rhys Ruddock, Eoin Reddan, Madigan and Fergus McFadden chosen ahead of Cronin, Van der Flier, Kieran Marmion, Jackson and McCloskey.

It takes us back to the fundamental point of developing a rotational dynamic beyond the team leaders. The team is no longer 15 but 23 with the squad no longer 23 but 30-plus.

Ideally, Schmidt would like three players competing for every position and that clearly is the short-term goal for South Africa and what lies ahead - ie New Zealand twice and Australia in the autumn.

But for now it's about winning, and I would hope with a bit of derring-do. We don't expect a repeat of Murrayfield 12 months ago but somewhere between that and the Italian job would do just nicely. Ireland by six.

Irish Independent

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