George Hook: Have we sunk so low that third place is an acceptable finish?
After a lacklustre and disappointing Championship thus far, Ireland head into the final round of the RBS Six Nations against Scotland tomorrow with their initial objective still within reach.
Despite blowing a healthy lead to draw against Wales, followed by back-to-back defeats to France and England, Joe Schmidt's pre-tournament prediction of a mid-table finish is still very much within the team's compass.
Looking back, it was a strange move by the head coach to openly quash Irish expectations before a ball had even been kicked, but a savage injury toll, coupled with some conservative selection decisions and a blunt refusal to deviate from a narrow and predictable game plan, has led Ireland to this position.
Last year, the prospect of settling the mid-table spoils with Scotland would have been considered a dismal campaign. Yet, because of Ireland's stagnation since the World Cup and with the coach setting the bar low from the outset, there is an air of excited anticipation surrounding the outcome of tomorrow's game.
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Is beating Scotland the target by which Ireland should be measured? Has this team fallen to such a degree that a third-place finish in the Six Nations is now considered an acceptable return?
Perhaps this is Ireland's true level. Last Saturday's nine-try annihilation of an abysmal Italy suggested that Ireland's theretofore toothless attack had been transformed overnight. But on reflection, the result against the Italians owed as much to the visitors misfiring as it did Ireland's brilliance with ball in hand.
Ireland were still too narrow and predictable inside the opposition 22 last Saturday and while Italy struggled to contain the onslaught, there is no doubt that Scotland will be primed and ready for a similar Ireland attacking style this weekend.
The highlight of the win against Italy was the wonderful break and offload by Simon Zebo to set up Jamie Heaslip's try before half-time. It says an awful lot about how low expectations have fallen that Zebo's piece of ingenuity should be treated with such fervour and excitement. New Zealand players produce tries like that once a week. Offloads, like that of Zebo's, are a dime-a-dozen in the southern hemisphere. In Ireland, a simple, well-timed pass resulted in mass hysteria. The question this weekend is; will we see more of it?
Zebo has retained his place in the starting XV at full-back, though one wonders which way the call would have gone had Rob Kearney recovered from a hamstring injury. And while the Munster back offers Ireland something different in attack, defensively he remains a liability.
Tomorrow afternoon Zebo will go up against one of the stand-out players in the tournament in Stuart Hogg. Zebo's defensive positioning will be scrutinised to capacity against the Scottish full-back and one wonders if he has learned enough in the space of seven days to cut out the mistakes of last weekend.
Twice Zebo got sucked in, inside the Irish 22 two and twice Italy capitalised with a try. Vern Cotter has unwittingly done Ireland a favour with his team selection. Peter Horne, the catalyst for so much of Scotland's potent attack against France last week, has been kept on the bench, with the far more predictable Duncan Weir promoted to start in place of Finn Russell.
Weir has a decent kicking game, but he is far less of a threat with ball in hand than his Glasgow team-mate. Horne stepped in admirably when Russell was taken off at Murrayfield last Sunday and one has to question why Cotter didn't keep faith with him after such a good performance?
In an equally puzzling selection decision, Josh Strauss has been dropped in favour of Ryan Wilson at No 8. South African-born Strauss was very effective in tying up France in the loose last weekend and he carried a lot of ball. His absence tomorrow is difficult to fathom.
The loss of Scotland's top tackler and lineout weapon, Jonny Gray, because of injury has considerably weakened the pack and Ireland might just feel that the visitors are there for the taking. However, the Scottish scrum remains one of their primary weapons and Ireland cannot afford to drop the set-piece and give Greg Laidlaw kickable penalties. Jack McGrath and Mike Ross can expect a stiff examination from Alaisdair Dickinson and WP Nell.
Regardless of Scotland's reshuffled team, Ireland need a significant step-up from last weekend's performance against Italy tomorrow. Cotter is all too familiar with his former protégé's coaching methods and if Ireland revert to type and refuse to vary up their attack, Scotland will.
A third-place finish is the prize on offer for the winners tomorrow afternoon and perhaps that says more about how far Ireland have fallen than anything else. And should Ireland manage just their second victory in the campaign, the coach can point to a box ticked and a target successfully achieved. But success is relative and even a win will give little cause for celebration.