Tuesday 20 March 2018

Brendan Fanning: Ireland to confirm home dominance

They may have to play a bit smarter, but Joe Schmidt's men should overpower Scotland

There were times against Wales when Keith
Earls (above) looked like he was in danger of
dislocating a shoulder, so wildly was he flapping
his arms trying to get attention Photo: Sportsfile
There were times against Wales when Keith Earls (above) looked like he was in danger of dislocating a shoulder, so wildly was he flapping his arms trying to get attention Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

We asked a Scottish colleague last week about the mood over there in the wake of the Murrayfield Massacre of England. Notwithstanding the ripple of embarrassment spreading through the rugby ranks of that country after the abuse of Eddie Jones by a few well 'pished' Scots at a Manchester train station - Jones was heading to Old Trafford where a warmer welcome awaited - our pal likened it to a time from another era when the Scots lost the run of themselves completely.

You'd have to be of a certain age to remember the fluffy cloud of delusion that settled over Scotland ahead of the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. While the host manager Cesar Menotti was in a potentially life or death situation to win the trophy, and satisfy the military junta who were busy disappearing anyone looking remotely like a dissident, Ally MacLeod was happily gathering his Tartan Army.

That was the genesis of that awful dirge about 'really shaking them up when we win the World Cup.' Scotland lost 3-1 to Peru first up. Peru. Where's Peru? By the end of it all poor Ally was a broken, friendless man. The Tartan Army was demobbed.

We can identify readily with the way the Scots lost touch with reality back then. On this side of the water typically we are only a few drinks removed from tumbling down the same hill. Some would suggest the publicity that attended the bid for the 2023 Rugby World Cup illustrated perfectly our tendency to let wishful win out over pragmatic. We would disagree, but in any case we get it.

For Scottish rugby that syndrome is rooted in their abject record in the Six Nations. England, France, Wales and Ireland have all enjoyed Championship title wins. For the Scots, not a sausage. Their win rate in this competition is a miserable 29 per cent.

They have finished in the bottom two more often than any other of the home nations, never getting out of those places for nine straight seasons from 2008. So when at last they beat England for the first time in 10 years - the record now reads four wins from 19 Championship games - that chink of daylight looks like high noon on a summer's day. All the more so given the quality of their performance. This wasn't a throwback to Chris Paterson kicking like a metronome; it was a 3-1 on tries display that had a bit of everything.

Their most acute issue, however, has been getting that bit of sunlight on their backs away from home. At the press conference following Ireland's demolition of Italy last month Conor O'Shea was asked to map Ireland's route to Championship success.

"Well, they won't lose at home," he said, as an opener. The words were uttered emphatically, with the freedom that comes from having no skin in that particular game. So by the time Scotland fetch up in Rome on St Patrick's Day O'Shea expects to be facing a side who have not won away against one of the home countries since 2010. Coincidentally that was against Ireland, in Croke Park. In the final game of that interlude in Dublin 3 Dan Parks won it with a last-minute strike. The win deprived Ireland of a fifth Triple Crown in seven years. That title was losing its lustre fast by then but the wooden spoon - which the Scots dodged with that win - still carried lots of negative weight.

This tendency to fall over once they leave home was getting a lot of airplay before Scotland's opener this season in Cardiff. And what a downer that was. If Finn Russell was being love-bombed for his wonder-pass to Huw Jones against England last weekend then he was being hammered for his role in jumping the gun to chase Wales.

"We've found it hard to chase down a game," second row Grant Gilchrist concedes. "In most of the games where we've done well, we've done well from the start - minus the France game where we showed some good bottle to come back. That's where you look very average: when you find yourself behind and chasing a game, and you start going off-script to try and make something happen. We didn't have that composure."

What was so striking in Cardiff was the speed at which Scotland lost the plot. So if they find themselves in the blue corner and getting pummelled in the first quarter on Saturday, what then?

Ireland at Lansdowne Road are a very serious proposition. For anybody. Since early 2014 they have played 23 games there between Championship, Guinness series and World Cup warm-ups, and lost just twice, to Wales and New Zealand. That defeat by the All Blacks in November 2016 was the last defeat at HQ. It is a stellar record which you'd imagine Joe Schmidt can recite by heart.

With time almost up last weekend, however, the Ireland coach must have had palpitations. Wales were attacking left to right and Ireland already were stretched. Gareth Anscombe had a choice to make: hit either Justin Tipuric or Hadleigh Parkes. Given that Parkes is a back and was calling for the ball it was easy to see why in that split second Anscombe should have chosen him - even if he was further away. Had he gone for Tipuric it's likely Ireland would have lost. And Schmidt would have been sitting on a sharp stick as he tried to explain how, between possession and territory, a statistical landslide had turned into a sum that didn't add up on the scoreboard.

Clearly something is not right when you are as good as Ireland are currently and you end up in circumstances like this. The policy was to beat up Wales. Inevitably this involved a lot of one-out rugby, which is low risk. If you reckon you have it physically over your opponents it's a sound, if unattractive, approach.

But it shouldn't mean that Ireland had to be devoid of craft close to the breakdown. You lost count of the number of times they shovelled ball straight from the back of the ruck to the next ball carrier, sparing the men in red the chore of thinking. No subterfuge, no decoys, no questions asked of the defenders closest to the ruck. Just blunt trauma.

This became painful for Keith Earls, who at times looked like he was in danger of dislocating a shoulder so wildly was he flapping his arms trying to get attention. Why? Because while the forwards, supplemented by a willing Bundee Aki or Chris Farrell, were pounding into the red wall, Earls was in space and unmarked.

When you play five games of massive intensity over seven weeks there has to be cognisance of the workload. And the irony for Ireland last Saturday was that they could have had a smoother passage if they hadn't actually worked so hard. Or rather if they had been a bit smarter.

It's certain that Gregor Townsend will be poring over every inch of Ireland's structure from the three games to date looking for a crack to exploit. Townsend's presence in the Scotland set-up fuels the confidence charge over there because he is unique in that he has actually won something.

In 1999 - their last Championship win - he scored against every opponent, and as a coach his Guinness Pro12 title with Glasgow in 2015 is the only piece of silverware to end up on a Scottish sideboard - for club or country - since the turn of the millennium.

Already he is all over the narrowness of Ireland's defence like a rash, a shortcoming that gave up tries to Adam Shingler and Steff Evans last weekend. Fergus McFadden's decision to step in on the build-up to Evans's try was something Schmidt thought he had left behind him in that painful endgame with New Zealand in 2013 - indeed in the same corner of the same pitch.

So Andy Farrell will be feeling a bit of heat this week, which will manifest itself in some interesting field sessions. The return to the midfield of Garry Ringrose will help, for what he lacks in sheer grunt he more than compensates with intuition. And the return to the mix of Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson is rank bad news for Townsend's hope of early dominance leading to a bright start.

"That's why we always put such emphasis on that first 20 minutes," Gilchrist says. "You can't necessarily win the game in that period, but you can certainly lose it if you get things wrong. The first and last 20 minutes are big focuses for us as a team. If you start well and show dominance, especially against a team like England or Ireland who are looking to physically dominate you in the collisions, you give yourself a chance. If you don't match it, you've got an uphill battle all day.

"It's a massive area you have to get right. When we have got that right, the full performance has been there for the whole game. If you start well, it tends to set the tone."

More likely Scotland's achievement will be to move their performance on from the Cardiff disaster. Home wins over France and England are welcome at any time, but there will be no hat-trick in Dublin. The Tartan Army won't be mobilised just yet.

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