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Ireland need a fast start to set England a stiff target

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THE PRIZE remains the same but the build-up to this decisive final day in Murrayfield feels very different to Paris 12 months ago.

Wales' win in Cardiff has deflated Ireland's bubble and Joe Schmidt's ability to pump them back up in time for this meeting with his old friend Vern Cotter will determine whether they can go back-to-back for the first time in 66 years.

To do so, they must atone for their poor start at the Millennium Stadium by going at Scotland hard and fast from the off. The hosts are not a bad team, but four narrow defeats in succession mean their confidence levels will hardly survive a suffocating Ireland display,

However, if the champions come in licking their wounds and try to ease their way into the game then they'll be in for a long afternoon and will be handing their trophy back.

Ireland are hurting after last week's emasculating afternoon in the Welsh capital.

Wales hit them where it hurt most, using their own strengths against them and asking them questions they didn't want to be asked.

And yet, they were still there at the end, a refereeing call away from a draw that would have maintained control of their own destiny. It's a mark of how far they've come, and their inability to get over the line should drive their response.

Scotland are a decent side, but Ireland are better. Schmidt and his old mentor are like-minded in how they approach the game, but the man who came out from under Cotter's wing to coach Leinster to great success has the stronger players at his disposal and has had longer to work with them.

Ireland must ensure their heads are not fried by events elsewhere, because the home side have a clear focus in avoiding a whitewash. Scotland don't care what happens in Rome or London and, while Wales might set them a target to chase, Schmidt's side can't get too hung up on chasing it.

Instead, they must go back to building a score in the way they did in the opening three games by using their ability to dominate the air to establish field position and pressurising the Scots into conceding penalties.

The men in green have appeared allergic to the whitewash and four tries is a paltry return, but there is a real belief in the camp that they are close to breaking free from Schmidt's famous set-plays.

If anyone can read his play-book, it's Cotter, who replicates many of the moves that his old friend uses, such as the lineout move that led to Scotland's try at Twickenham a week ago.

That display should have Ireland well warned as to what the Scots can do, but it also presented opportunities galore. England have some of the best strike runners in the tournament who found huge holes in the Scottish defence and Jack Nowell's success returning high balls may have inspired the decision to recall Luke Fitzgerald.

They won't want to get sucked into a fast and loose gunfight with a team who thrive in open play but struggle in the tight exchanges.

Sean O'Brien has a job on his hands against Blair Cowan, but the New Zealand-born flanker can get on the wrong side of referees and if Ireland can get more change out of their carrying game than they did in Cardiff, it will lay the platform for success.

Depth

With the World Cup in mind, Ireland need to put more depth on their carries but their ability to hold on to the ball and pound the defensive line should stand to them against a Scottish team who are highly unlikely to be as good in defence as Wales were last weekend.

Without the ball, Ireland will put faith in their defence that has been breached just twice so far and their discipline. Keeping Jerome Garces onside will go a long way and captain Paul O'Connell could do with having a word with some of his more vocal back-row players in order to stay in the French referee's favour.

Ultimately, Ireland's success today could be determined by events elsewhere. If England beat France and better their scoreline, then they can have no complaints.

The onus on Schmidt and his team is to not die wondering, to ensure that Stuart Lancaster's men have a daunting challenge ahead of them. It might reap the reward of more silverware, it might not; but it would be a shame not to put the pressure on.

Indo Sport