Wednesday 17 January 2018

Keeping the ball is key to success for Best's troops as they look to end tough campaign on a high

Ireland's Robbie Henshaw. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland's Robbie Henshaw. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

It's been a while since Scotland arrived in Dublin brimming with confidence, while Ireland haven't had so little to play for on the final day of the Six Nations for a couple of seasons.

Vern Cotter's team are riding the crest of a wave and are targeting their best Championship finish in 10 years while winning three Six Nations games in a row for the first time in 20.

They ran England and Wales close, before beating Italy and France and have played some good rugby along the way, while boasting arguably the player of the tournament in Stuart Hogg at full-back.

This is the team who, but for a disastrous mistake from today's referee Craig Joubert, would have been the last northern hemisphere team standing at last year's World Cup and, having been strengthened by some high-calibre overseas signings, now boast a world-class scrum and strong back-row.

Scotland think they're on the right track and that sense would be underscored by a result at the Aviva Stadium today. Ireland's job is to keep them down.

They will start by trying to hold on to the ball for long periods in an attempt to exploit the Scots' six-day turnaround.

"I think we need to be accurate with the ball," Ireland captain Rory Best said.

"We need to keep the ball and make Scotland make tackles, regardless of the turnaround. That's how we control the tempo. That's how we control the game by keeping hold of the ball. That's when we look at our best.

"Coupled with that, we need to make our front-up tackles. With Scotland, especially on a six-day turnaround, it can be a factor if you put pressure on teams and you make them go backwards all the time, all of a sudden you start to feel tired. If you're on the front-foot, breaking tackles and the opposition are handing the ball back to you easily, all of a sudden fatigue doesn't become an issue because you're relishing being out there and you're enjoying playing."

Ireland got a confidence fillip when they ran in nine tries against Italy last weekend, but all week they've been reminding us that the Azzurri were suffering from an injury crisis as much to remind themselves not to get carried away as anything else.

They certainly won't have things as easy as they did last week, with the visitors likely to provide Ireland with some tough moments in the scrum and breakdown.

However, the loss of Glasgow Warriors pair Finn Russell and Jonny Gray weakens the Scots considerably, with Duncan Weir not at the same level as the first-choice out-half.

Gray has been the top tackler of any player in this year's Six Nations in terms of frequency and accuracy and his absence also deprives Nathan Hines' lineout of a serious operator. While their all-Edinburgh front-row offer a threat in the scrum, they are not as strong out of touch and Devin Toner will almost certainly attack Ross Ford's throw, while Jack McGrath, Best and Mike Ross will be confident that their experience can see them through.

"I've seen a lot of them and they're pretty strong and pretty dynamic, they're a good unit and they've been putting a lot of scrums under pressure," McGrath said of the Scottish front-row.

"It helps when all three of them are playing together week in, week out.

"(Alistair) Dickinson and (WP) Nel, they pose their own threats and they're explosive, strong, short guys so it's something we've really focused on this week and I think we've tweaked a few things in our own set-up, and we're looking forward to trying that out because we always try to raise the bar.

"It's something they pride themselves in and we're looking forward to trying to match them and maybe looking forward to going one up on them."

If Ireland can neutralise the Scottish scrum, then their next battleground will be the ruck where Schmidt will hope Tommy O'Donnell takes out his frustration at losing his place to Josh van der Flier on the opposition.

The Munster man has a sizeable task on his hands as he goes up against Kiwi John Hardie who has impressed for Scotland, while Jamie Heaslip will be asked to lend a hand with the breakdown work as usual.

If Ireland can create a good platform, then they have the half-back combination to win the game.

Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton have been in excellent form and will look to hurt the visitors by varying their options and exploiting the space.

Outside them, Robbie Henshaw might find the going tougher this weekend after being given the freedom of Ballsbridge by the Italians; but he remains Ireland's key game-breaker behind the scrum and he and Jared Payne will relish their clash with the impressive Scottish pairing of Alex Dunbar and Duncan Taylor.

Outside them, both teams have back threes who can cause damage if given the ball and a yard of space, with Simon Zebo and Hogg both capable of changing the game.

Ireland will be determined to show that they can find their try-scoring touch against better opposition than Italy.

With three Tests against South Africa next up, they could do with signing off with a good win against an improving team that would most likely earn them a third-placed finish unless there's a surprise result in Paris.

A home defeat to Scotland would set them back badly after finally lifting the doom and gloom and would render this campaign a failure.

They wanted to win this Six Nations, but circumstances went against them and a top-half finish would represent par.

With the forecast good and both teams intending to play, it should be easy on the eye and Ireland look to hold the advantage.

Verdict: Ireland

Irish Independent

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