Thursday 14 December 2017

Scotland v Ireland: Four big talking points ahead of Six Nations opener

Conditions could force Ireland into an attritional game-plan and Schmidt has picked a powerful pack

Jamie Heaslip leads the Ireland squad through their stretching routine in Carton House yesterday Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Jamie Heaslip leads the Ireland squad through their stretching routine in Carton House yesterday Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

As he took questions at yesterday's team announcement, Ireland coach Joe Schmidt had to raise his voice to be heard above the rain pelting the windows of the drawing room at Carton House.

Unfortunately, the bleak conditions are something he was expecting will follow him and his squad to Edinburgh where the forecast for tomorrow's game is for wind and rain that will make talk of bonus points largely redundant.

The New Zealander keenly follows the weather websites over the course of Test weeks and there is little doubt that his game-plan will be adjusted accordingly to the conditions.

The Murrayfield pitch may be high quality, but it will become slippy underfoot and the greasy ball will play havoc with handling.

It might just play into Ireland's hands given the bulk of their experience lies between No's 1-9 and they look ready to outmuscle the Scots in the tight exchanges.

So how will they make the most of the wet and windy conditions in order to get off to a flying start to this year's Six Nations?

Low risk more reward

Two years ago Ireland came to Edinburgh in need of points on the final day of the season and attacked from deep at every opportunity.

On a sunny day in March, their abandon paid off and they claimed the Six Nations title but tomorrow the onus is on getting their campaign off to a winning start and it seems unlikely that Schmidt will send his team out with a similar approach.

Instead, it seems likely that they will take a conservative approach in Edinburgh; judging the risk of each pass before deciding whether to give it and using the strength of their kicking game and mobility and power of their pack to bully the Scots.

Joe Schmidt is confident he will have two key men available for Ireland's clash with Scotland

The beauty of Schmidt's team is their ability to switch between plan and shapes and while they used Devin Toner as a passing option to create space for a deep, sweeping backline during November, it seems likely that the big second-row will take a more direct approach.

Schmidt has picked a pack full of ball-carrying menace and it would be no surprise to see Iain Henderson, CJ Stander, Tadhg Furlong, Seán O'Brien and even Robbie Henshaw asked to hammer at the line within a pass or two of the ruck.

Set-piece solidity

Slippy conditions should lead to plenty of scrums and with Scotland missing their first-choice props there is a clear advantage for Ireland's starting pack from kick-off.

Referee Romain Poite tends to favour the dominant pack, so the visiting team will look to use their scrum to get themselves out of tricky situations.

Normally Ireland look to attack off a positive scrum, but if things get tight they could attempt a more destructive approach with Jack McGrath going after the inexperienced Zander Fagerson at every opportunity. Not that they're expecting it to be easy.

Tadhg Furlong

"They take a lot to the scrum," Tadhg Furlong said this week.

"Even though Zander Fagerson's a pretty young tighthead he's got a really good shape in there. The Munster lads know him pretty well having played against him a couple of times over the last few weeks and they said he's very, very strong when he gets down there. So as a cornerstone for the scrum he's very good.

"You look at the back five they're all big strong men, the second-rows especially, and as soon as that ball enters the scrum the have a very good snap."

Discipline and precision

Ireland's extraordinary discipline was the hallmark of their successful November campaign and with Scotland promising all sorts of fury in the wake of the Glasgow v Munster battles, it is incumbent on the visitors to keep their heads.

No doubt the head coach has already alerted Poite to the potential for the Warriors to go after Conor Murray's standing leg, while he will hope his calming words work as his players enter the arena.

He is not expecting the bad blood to continue tomorrow.

"I don't at all. I really think that once you're playing in a national side that it very much becomes focused on a new beginning and a new team against a new team," he said..

"I know there's a number of Munster guys on our team and there's a number of Glasgow Warriors in theirs but it's a different environment, Ireland against Scotland, and that in itself puts a different hue on the whole thing."

Schmidt will recall how the Scots' discipline crumbled under pressure as Australia came back to beat them in November and will hope that his side can exert something similar.

Keep the ball

Although Stuart Hogg redressed the balance with a superb individual try, the opening half of last year's meeting between the sides saw Ireland frustrate Scotland by keeping the ball for endless phases, earning penalties to allow Johnny Sexton build a score and force the opposition into a huge amount of tackles.

Ireland held on to the ball for 80 per cent of the first half in good conditions and used Murray's contestable kicks to regain high balls when targeting Sean Lamont.

Scotland head coach Vern Cotter. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

While Vern Cotter has picked his first-choice back three in Hogg, Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour, his old colleague will have spotted some weakness in their back-field coverage and will look for Murray and Paddy Jackson to exploit it with Keith Earls, Rob Kearney, Robbie Henshaw and Simon Zebo all strong in the air.

If they can get field position, they will look to get their three-ruck-rotation going in which they generate quick ball to keep the Scots on their toes and catch them offside, punching holes and tiring the defence.

They will also likely turn to their maul when the opportunity arises, grinding their hosts down and denying their exciting back-line ball where possible.

It may not be pretty, but Schmidt will hope it's effective.

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