Thursday 21 March 2019

No need for major surgery as Ireland go for jugular

Ireland need Johnny Sexton to exert more control
Ireland need Johnny Sexton to exert more control
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Joe Schmidt was affronted by the very notion he might have to go back to the drawing board after suffering his first defeat in 11 games last weekend, so don't expect to see a different Ireland this time around.

Instead of changing the plan, the focus this week will be around improving the way it's carried out by a group of players who were uncharacteristically error-prone against a Welsh team who hit the ground running and tackled their hearts out in Cardiff last weekend.

With the title set to be decided on points difference, Ireland need to score heavily, but they will look to build pressure on the board rather than chase tries from the off.

The players have repeated that mantra all week and they would be foolish to get into a gunfight against a Scotland side who caused England all sorts of problems with ball in hand. Instead, they must get their strengths right and the rest should follow.

Start as you mean to go on

The first sense that something was amiss in Cardiff came when Dan Biggar's kick-off bounced off Rob Kearney's chest. Up until that point during the tournament, Ireland had lorded the kick-off and restart areas of the game and it fed into a wider malaise in Schmidt's side's kicking-game.

It meant that Wales could establish themselves in Ireland's half from the off, and within a minute Leigh Halfpenny was kicking the first of four penalties to build a 12-0 lead. Ireland will have focused on their accuracy around this area this week and worked hard to ensure that they don't give Scotland a foot-hold.

Counter-attack

Greig Laidlaw loves a box-kick but his team's chase was not where it should have been last week and England punished Scotland by returning the ball with interest. Schmidt will encourage his back three to head in-field where the chasing-line is not working in tandem and hope that they can find the same space Jack Nowell did at Twickenham.

Prepare to look themselves in the mirror

Before each Test, Schmidt asks his non-starting players to perform as he reckons the opposition are going to on the training pitch, and this week they'll have had it easy enough.

Unsurprisingly, Vern Cotter and Joe Schmidt have very similar outlooks on the game and Scotland's tactics mirror Ireland's in many ways, with some of their set-plays and moves off lineouts identical to those the champions try to pull off.

Scotland are an improving force, but they are a year behind Ireland in development and don't have the same calibre of player, and if Ireland can play the same game with fewer mistakes they should thrive.

The bottom side have attacked well through this tournament, but Ireland should be able to deal with a familiar foe.

Read the referee and stay quiet

Wayne Barnes may not be a popular figure in Maynooth this week, but Ireland's failure to get to grips with the English official's breakdown interpretations were costly in Cardiff.

Part of the problem, as Bernard Jackman pointed out on RTE this week, was the tetchy nature of the exchanges between the men in green and the man in the middle.

This weekend, Jerome Garces is in charge and Paul O'Connell could do with warning his players not to be in the French official's ear all day.

Maul, maul and maul again

Presuming Ireland fix their lineout issues, they have a real opportunity to go after the Scots at the maul, where Italy did their damage three weeks ago.

Last season, Ireland rolled over the Scottish pack off good lineout ball and sapped the life out of their opponents.

This time, they will hope to get big gains in the close exchanges, grinding down the home pack and sucking in defenders.

Apart from their penalty try, the closest they came to crossing the whitewash in Cardiff was when Tommy Bowe came up short from a Conor Murray peel off another maul, while their dominance in last year's fixture was largely down to their strength and cohesion in the maul.

Sharpen up the set-plays

Schmidt lamented a lack of accuracy in the aftermath of last week's game and while the basics were missing, there were also moments when the attack threatened to spark but a pass was slightly awry or a blocking line just missed its target.

Scotland won't defend as well as Wales' outstanding rearguard effort, while Ireland will hope that Johnny Sexton is sharper after another week in camp, and if they cut out the errors they can find space in the wide channels of the Scottish defence.

Be ready to capitalise

If Ireland can get ahead and build a score, Cotter's side are likely to throw everything at them, given they are in the last-chance saloon.

They tend to go for more offloads than Ireland attempt and when they force things it could open up for Ireland to pounce. Turnover ball could be key.

Irish Independent

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