Monday 23 April 2018

Irish side must up tempo against Scotland - Five talking points ahead of Six Nations showdown

Dealing with Scottish scrum and providing quick ball the key to finishing on a high

Conor Murray exposed Italy’s poor organisation with a couple of quick taps. The scrum-half will be key to setting the right tempo on Saturday against Scotland. Photo: Cody Glenn / Sportsfile
Conor Murray exposed Italy’s poor organisation with a couple of quick taps. The scrum-half will be key to setting the right tempo on Saturday against Scotland. Photo: Cody Glenn / Sportsfile
Ireland's Mike Ross
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

For the first time in more than a decade, Scotland come to Dublin with a look of real intent about them.

Their victory at Croke Park in 2010 thanks to Dan Parks' match-winning penalty remains their only Six Nations win in Ireland and on most occasions their visits barely register in the memory banks.

But Vern Cotter has now assembled a Scotland side who were a bad refereeing decision away from being the only northern hemisphere team to reach the World Cup semi-finals.

In this Six Nations, they have recovered from a six-point defeat to England and four-point loss in Wales to beat France and Italy and a third successive win would make this their most successful tournament since 2006.

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There is much to admire about the way Cotter sets his stall out and there are definite similarities between the way the two teams set up under the old colleagues.

Both coaches have tweaked their systems to make the most out of the players at their disposal, but the fundamentals that underscore their teams - quick ruck ball, good discipline and a strong set-piece - are recognisable.

Joe Schmidt and Cotter's paths have crossed six times since they parted company at Clermont Auvergne and it's three apiece. While the players will do battle on Saturday, their fates will be determined by which coach plays the better hand.

Dust off the Murrayfield template?

Twelve months have passed since Ireland hammered the Scots at Murrayfield, playing a fast, ambitious attacking game that would appear to be the perfect template for finishing on a high.

The big difference between this year and last is that Scotland have been strengthened by the naturalisation of a trio of top talent, while Ireland have endured significant personnel changes.

WP Nel has transformed their scrum into their weapon of choice, while Josh Strauss's ball-carrying has continued from Glasgow into the national team. John Hardie, meanwhile, has been an upgrade on fellow Kiwi Blair Cowan, adding a layer of menace to the Scottish breakdown.

Paul O' Connell offers the trophy to the rest of the team at the end of the 2015 Six Nations campaign

Ireland are not in a position to judge their neighbours about their use of the ridiculous eligibility laws and while there are ethical questions around the three-year residency ruling, it has undoubtedly allowed Vern Cotter's men become competitive quickly.

Certainly, Conor Murray believes too much water has passed under the bridge since that game.

"Scotland are much better, they're going to play a lot better than they did that day. That's too long ago now, after their World Cup and Six Nations; their performance against France it's a different Scotland team and we've got to eye it up a bit differently," he said.

That doesn't mean Ireland should check their ambition, but it seems unlikely that Joe Schmidt's side will simply throw caution to the wind.

Tempo the key

That being said, there is an argument for Ireland continuing to play with the intent and tempo that they displayed when running Italy ragged.

Murray exploited the Azzurri's organisational difficulties with a couple of quick taps in the first half and, last Sunday in Edinburgh, Maxime Machenaud had the Scots in trouble when he took snap decisions to run penalties in Edinburgh.

Often his good work was undone by loose French play, but Ireland will be more patient.

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Scotland are coming off the back of a six-day turnaround and will tire if the home side can keep the pace high and the ball in play.

If they can dominate the ruck and secure quick ball for Johnny Sexton to play off, the in-form Ireland out-half can dominate.

Set-piece parity

Nel is an integral part of an all-Edinburgh front-row who have been a revelation at this level since he qualified to play for his adopted country and Jack McGrath is in for a difficult afternoon as he looks to attack the tighthead.

Similarly, Mike Ross will need all of his experience and scrummaging nous against Alistair Dickinson who will use the solidity of his No 3 to have a go at the Ireland tighthead, pushing the refereeing of Craig Joubert with his angles.

He generally gets away with it too, with Scotland's success rate at scrum-time impressive.

Ireland's Cian Healy, right, and Mike Ross should play their first part in this year's Championship on Saturday.

In Ross's absence, Ireland's scrum undermined their general performances against France and Wales, but the Leinster man has restored solidity since his return and they have only lost one ball in 28 put-ins.

The Scots have lost two lineouts per game so far and Jonny Gray's absence through injury weakens their work out of touch where Devin Toner will hope to have an influence.

Don't be afraid to maul

The Irish maul is enjoying a comeback as this Six Nations draws to a close and against England and Italy there were moments when it looked close to being back to the good days under John Plumtree.

Scotland struggled to cope with both the French and Welsh maul and by keeping the ball in tight for a period it also takes Hardie out of the equation for the next play as he is forced to get down and dirty with the forwards.

For all that last week was free-running and exciting, Ireland's greatest weapon remains their attack off lineout ball and they must continue to exploit an area of strength in order to suck the Scots in and wear them down.

Defend with aggression

When Ireland's line-speed lapses, they become vulnerable in the wide channels and for all the rest of us were delighted with length-of-the-field tries against Italy, the coach would have been satisfied with an improvement in aggression without the ball.

Still, when that faded during the second half, with the result long-gone, Italy still found room on the edge and it is up to Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne to get up in Scottish faces to prevent the likes of Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour getting space out wide.

Ireland have been guilty of getting too narrow around the rucks, but they will have to be wary of the Scottish carriers. Cotter's men, like Schmidt's, don't just go wide at every opportunity and will look to carry hard around the fringes to suck in as many men as possible.

Getting the balance right between competing and declaring a lost ruck and rejoining the defensive line will be key. Scotland's attack has been good in recent weeks, but England shut it down with raw aggression. Ireland should look to squeeze them.

Irish Independent

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