Friday 19 October 2018

Forget Twickenham: Scots hold key to Ireland's Grand ambitions

Jack O’Donoghue plays some football during Munster training yesterday. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Jack O’Donoghue plays some football during Munster training yesterday. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Ireland have been here before under Joe Schmidt. In Paul O'Connell's final season, they took the Six Nations turn on course for a Grand Slam and rolled into Cardiff in good form and confident of taking the next step.

That it all went wrong at the Millennium Stadium should serve as a reminder that they can't take Scotland for granted on Saturday week.

That's a mistake they made last season when the bus was late at Murrayfield and everything flowed from there as Ireland got their campaign off to a terrible start.

They are nothing if not forewarned as they begin preparations for the visit of a buoyant Scottish side.

Ireland host an open session at Lansdowne Road this morning and a number of key men are likely to be rested as they recover from a bruising win over Wales last weekend.

That victory has gotten the Grand Slam talk going and, while Chris Farrell expressed his belief that the squad have what it takes, it is likely that Rory Best's more conservative 'one game at a time' mantra will be the one adopted behind the scenes.

Memorable

If Schmidt wanted something to bring his players back down to earth after a memorable win, the Scottish performance in beating England was just right.

Nobody in green will be underestimating a team that found major holes in the Irish rearguard last season and tore the champions asunder in Edinburgh.

Complacency won't be an issue this time around.

The St Patrick's Day shoot-out against England at Twickenham had been expected to be a title decider and a potential Grand Slam eliminator, but Scotland have ripped the script up.

Ireland could conceivably win the title next weekend, but that presumes they'll beat Scotland and collect a third try-scoring bonus point - something they won't be entertaining in public.

Yet, it is not beyond the bounds of what they are capable of - particularly with Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson back on board.

Scotland's big win follows their victories over Australia and close call against New Zealand, but despite beating the Wallabies on home soil last June, there are still doubts about their work on the road.

Their last away trip was a hammering at the hands of Wales in Cardiff and their coach Gregor Townsend concedes there is work to be done on their form outside of Edinburgh.

"That is going to be the challenge," Townsend told 'The Scotsman'.

"There is probably a twin challenge in that we have to look at Ireland closely, what we need to do to beat them and what we need to do to get our game in place. But it is also about how we do much better away from home.

"It has been an issue for Scottish teams since the Six Nations began. We have to make sure we play close to our potential.

"If that means we win the game, then brilliant. But if it means that we just put in a very improved performance compared to the likes of Cardiff and Twickenham, then that is a big step forward.

"It's not something new, part of it is that it is tough to play away from home, as England found out here. All teams have much better home records in this tournament than, say, in November games or in World Cups.

"We took lessons from Cardiff into the French game. The selection changed, more experienced players came back into the group and they have really helped us over the last two games. That has to be taken into consideration.

"As a group, we talked straight after that game about what we had to do better in terms of our mental focus.

"But we also said we would not have another opportunity for a month because we had two big games at home to play. We will turn our attention to that (Ireland) next week."

Victory in Dublin would open the door for a first Scottish Six Nations title, but Townsend is still in his first season and expressing caution.

Ireland's home record in the Six Nations is excellent under Schmidt, their 10-point win over Wales shows that even without some big names the team can still perform to a high level and they will believe that they can go and win in England in two weeks' time.

It will count for little if they can't get the job done next week against a rising Scottish team who stunned them last season.

Thoughts of Twickenham can wait, the Scots will have Ireland's full attention. Otherwise, the Grand ambitions will go up in smoke.

Irish Independent

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