Tony Ward: Irish can take aerial route to flying start
Forget about bonus points, early progress is essential in the Six Nations and Joe Schmidt's men can gain much-needed confidence by grinding out a win against resurgent Scotland
Close to two years ago, on March 21 to be precise, we were treated to the most exciting day in Five/Six Nations history.
Lest anyone forgets, it was the day the Welsh went to Rome and won 61-20, Ireland to Edinburgh and emerged with a 40-10 victory and the French to London for another point-scoring extravaganza despite coming second to the home side on a 55-35 scoreline. It was breathtaking stuff and when the numbers were crunched it was an Irish Six Nations Championship for the second year running.
Standard Six Nations fare it was not but, in the chase for points and tries in a unique set of circumstances, it was a very special day and a privilege to be there in Murrayfield as Joe Schmidt put together our first back-to-back titles since 1948 and '49.
Les Kiss was a key member of Schmidt's backroom staff at that time and I remember talking to him in the immediate aftermath when he was at pains to emphasise that what transpired that remarkable day in Rome, Edinburgh and London was in fact unreal.
To be fair, I didn't need the then Irish defensive coach to tell me that but, what the hell, it made the best tournament in the world outside of the Rugby World Cup even better again.
Now two years on and the few remaining dinosaurs at Six Nations Rugby (located in Dublin 4, in case you've ever wondered) have finally seen the light by way of the long-overdue introduction of the tried-and-trusted bonus system that's in operation in every major tournament of consequence around the world.
Still, and better late than never as that vital ingredient is added to the competition and it should ensure that this annual tribal warfare remains the jewel in the northern hemisphere crown.
It's probably fair to suggest that for today's must-win opener, bonus points, be they for crossing the whitewash or finishing within seven, will be the last thing on the mind of either Vern Cotter or his former Clermont Auvergne and Bay of Plenty assistant Joe Schmidt. Today is about winning and with it momentum. It may be a repetitive term but the significance of early winning momentum, and the confidence it brings, cannot be emphasised enough.
To that winning objective, Schmidt ,and by extension Simon Easterby, can field what is for me Ireland's strongest available forward unit at this point in time.
A very substantial case could be made for Josh van der Flier's inclusion from the off but in the Leinster openside ,along with Ultan Dillane (which is really tough on the in-form Donnacha Ryan) and Cian Healy, he has guaranteed impact off the bench.
With just a single cap between them, Niall Scannell and John Ryan are rookies at this level of rugby but clearly based on recent evidence with Munster the potential is there too, although no doubt James Tracy, Richardt Strauss and Finlay Bealham will see it differently.
Behind the scrum, had Johnny Sexton, Jared Payne and Andrew Trimble been available, the backline would surely have been very different.
That said, and given the circumstances, the inclusion of Kieran Marmion and Tommy Bowe is again based on their potential game-changing impact. Marmion is not yet a gear-changer in the Eoin Reddan mode but clearly that tempo-turning potential is there.
The real issue of course is at out-half. I guess there is a touch of irony given that the No 10 larder is stocked as well as ever and I include Ian Madigan in that. Suppose for a second it was Conor Murray and not Madigan plying his trade in France, would Murray be sitting in Bordeaux or wherever this weekend watching events unfold on TV? One rule for Sexton in his time at Racing and another now for Madigan smacks of double standards.
Nevertheless, I do believe Paddy Jackson is a very credible alternative to Sexton (although the Leinster man is still our top number ten).
Jackson has all the tools and is now very much the focal point he has to be at Ulster. His distribution is in the Sexton/Ronan O'Gara mould and so too his tactical kicking, while his pace and eye for a gap is deceptively good.
With Joey Carbery injured, Madigan out of the picture and neither Jack Carty nor Ross Byrne yet ready, the call for Ian Keatley makes clear and obvious sense. On a personal level, I am delighted for a player who has so much of the talent required to play in the pivotal position and yet with that brittle temperament that comes to the surface when things start to untangle.
If only he could box away that aspect to his make-up. Easier said than done I know but when he is good he is very, very good and as I know only too well myself that slap on the back, six inches from a kick in the arse, is worth its weight in gold. No better man than Schmidt for pressing that button should the need arise.
It's hard to believe but there are only nine of the Irish 23 and eight of the Scottish from that corresponding game two years ago. In Finn Russell, Tommy Seymour, Huw Jones (watch him) and Stuart Hogg, the Scots have backs at least the equal if not better than their immediate opposites.
Greg Laidlaw pulls the strings in a pack of real quality specifically through Jonny Gray, Josh Strauss and the versatile Ryan Wilson.
Against that is serious ball-carrying potential through Jack McGrath, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, CJ Stander and Seán O'Brien.
Given the cold and wet conditions forecast, I don't think it requires a degree in rocket science to know where the Irish emphasis will be. Add to that Rob Kearney back on board plus Bowe on the bench and the aerial card speaks for itself.
It is over a decade since the Scots last won their opening Championship game so this they see as a real opportunity. Scottish rugby through Glasgow in the Champions Cup and Edinburgh through the Challenge is in a good place.
But if we are as strong as we believe ourselves to be then this is the day. Ireland by six.