Wednesday 24 January 2018

Green giants stand on another level

Kidney's well-oiled unit can pile more misery on Robinson's luckless outfit and crown Croke Park era with silverware

The Irish team in action during the Captain's Run at Croke Park yesterday. Photo: PA
The Irish team in action during the Captain's Run at Croke Park yesterday. Photo: PA

hugh farrelly

AN Irish victory today is as predictable as the 'what's under your kilt?' question that Scotland supporters will trade on in Temple Bar this weekend.

It's a question of levels. You go through the Scotland team and everywhere you find a decent Scottish player, you look at his Irish counterpart and find that he is a level above.

Kelly Brown is a good example. He is a physical and effective blindside flanker -- just not as good as Stephen Ferris. Likewise, John Beattie and Jamie Heaslip or Sean Lamont and Tommy Bowe.

At half-back, Chris Cusiter and Dan Parks are a tidy, efficient pairing but Tomas O'Leary and Jonathan Sexton pose a threat on the run and in defence that the Scottish pair cannot match.

The only exception to this compare-and-contrast rule is at tight-head prop, with open-side flanker possibly prompting a short debate before David Wallace's all-round game would get him the nod over John Barclay.

However, if it was a specific horses-for-courses pick, say for example if Heinrich Brussow was on the opposing team, Barclay's breakdown skills would put him in with a shout.

That being said, Wallace was excellent in this regard last weekend and the controversial interpretation of the tackle law -- set for further reinforcement this evening with another South African, Jonathan Kaplan, calling the shots -- is set to reduce the effectiveness of traditional nose-in-the dirt No 7s. Given Euan Murray's religious devotion preventing him playing on Sundays, Scotland will be grateful this match is not taking place tomorrow as the Northampton tight-head puts the fear of God into every scrum he comes up against.

Murray would walk into most teams in the world and represents a giant test for Ireland's young loose-head Cian Healy, but one that will stand to the Clontarf man who has made a superb start to his international career following his debut against Australia last November.

Everywhere else, Ireland simply look too strong and perhaps the greatest disparity between today's combatants lies in the area of mental fortitude.

Their Paris calamity aside, Declan Kidney's Irish team carries an air of assuredness that is in stark contrast to Scottish jitters. It stems from a record which boasts 14 wins, two losses and a draw from the 17 matches that Kidney has been at the helm for.

The loss to France was Ireland's only reverse in 15 months and it all adds up to sense of belief in the Irish ranks that precludes panic even when they are under the severest of pressure.

As for Scotland, panic has been their defining characteristic during this championship. Like Ireland, Scotland were never in with a realistic shout against France, but they then managed to surrender winning positions against Wales, Italy and England.

It is not hard to feel sympathy for their likeable coach Andy Robinson. He is a heart- on-the-sleeve character and a man of incredible commitment and intensity. His overt agony in the coaches' box as his team soil the course again makes for hard viewing.

Scotland are destined to finish bottom of the table behind Italy, but that will not reflect the good work Robinson is doing with this team.

The players are fully behind him and that unity is evident in Scottish play. Last weekend's draw with England may have been the rugby equivalent of watching the Angelus, but there was no doubting Scottish desire.

We can be sure of a few things with Scotland this evening: their scrum will be solid; they will be competitive at the breakdown; they will tackle themselves to a standstill and Parks will kick a lot of ball until the game gets away from Scotland and desperation becomes the mother of expansion.

Put it together and it is enough to make the visitors competitive and they will not be easy to break down. But Ireland will attack them in ways England would be unable to conceive, let alone execute, and the Scots will crack.

After conceding the majority of territory and possession to England and Wales in their last two outings, it is safe to expect that Ireland will have more of the ball against Scotland. They could still win with less possession, but improvement in this regard is essential with an eye on the summer Tests against New Zealand and Australia.

Another area for attention is the high penalty count, well into the teens in their last two matches. Kaplan will adhere to IRB directives in the tackle area but the Irish management team, nothing if not meticulous, will have their charges prepared and a penalty count around the nine or 10 mark is both desirable and realistic.

Aside from their mental strength, the twin pillars of this Irish side are a secure line-out and assured defence. Close in or wide out, Les Kiss' defensive system is all-encompassing and if an attacker does manage to break the line, he will be mown down by the cover defenders.

The French, exploiting Irish indiscipline, cracked it, but Scotland are not France and the likelihood is another try shutout from Ireland this evening. Ireland will also look for an improved place-kicking return from Sexton, whose trouble off the tee against Wales took away from a fine display in other departments. Kidney has a respect for the Scots that is not contrived or rudimentary, but that does not entertain the prospect of Robinson's side scuppering the post-Paris recovery process which needs a Triple Crown to emphasise its effectiveness.

"We lost in Paris, at some stage we will lose another match. Silverware would be a bonus, but we've got to go out and play against a good Scots team," said Kidney yesterday.

"They drew with England and if you look at the Wales game, they were 10 points up with five minutes to go. There was nothing in those matches.

"Scotland have improved no end. They are a hugely physical side; they just pummel you defensively. So, if a Triple Crown comes out of it that would be brilliant, but history shows us how difficult it (the last leg) can be."

If the Triple Crown is a motivating factor for Ireland then so too is the desire to bid farewell to Croke Park in suitable fashion. "We've had some great days here, some not so memorable, but for the most part we have some fantastic memories and we'll be sorry to say goodbye," acknowledged captain Brian O'Driscoll.

Wales were brittle last weekend and, though Scotland are similarly outclassed, they have a superior spirit which could lead to a less pronounced Irish margin of victory. However, a home win should be attained without too much agitation, forcing Scottish fans to wend into the night in search of kilt-raising consolation.

Verdict: Ireland

Irish Independent

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