Toner and Best to set platform for dominance
Impressive display as important as victory in game where set-piece efficiency will be crucial
An old sports philosophy still holds true: a Championship title cannot be won in the first round, but it most certainly can be lost. A half-hearted start is a fool-proof recipe for failure and, over the course of five rounds of international rugby, the truth will eventually out itself.
Ireland will take to the pitch at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow in must-win territory. To a man, the opposition will be inferior. Defeat is out of the question.
The lip-service to Scotland's abilities has already washed around the Ireland camp this week like predictable pots of tea at a bingo hall. Killing opponents with kindness is now the expected philosophical approach from both players and management in the build-up to matches, but even the most inexperienced hacks pay little heed to this routine fluff.
The extent of just how little thought goes into players' pre-match media drills is summed up perfectly in the following exchange, from an interview ahead of Munster's pre-season tour to La Rochelle two years ago.
Reporter: "Are you expecting a tough match against the French second division opposition?"
Munster Player: "Of course, yes, any time you go to La Rochelle you expect a really tough game".
Reporter: "Is this not your first time in La Rochelle?"
Munster Player: "It is, yeah".
Any rugby fan worth their salt understands the importance of the performance in victory tomorrow. Scotland, as is their wont, will be willing and earnest in effort. Their characteristic passion and grunt will be shoved to the fore in the early stages of the game, but Ireland must settle on their superior quality to dismantle the Scots' endeavour and reveal their opponents' weaknesses.
Ireland's set-piece has to dominate. Devin Toner has been picked primarily to win line-out ball but thankfully he has worked hard to develop other parts of his game over the last six months.
The human skyscraper's form at provincial level has forced the coaches' hands in selection and Toner's inclusion provides the perfect platform for quality ball off first phase.
Just as Toner will be expected to deliver in the air, so too Rory Best must hit his target. The absence of Richie Gray in the Scotland second-row is a fortuitous plus in the Ireland hooker's favour but Best has been guilty of some horrific throwing in the past. He must find his range tomorrow. Paul O'Connell and Toner will flourish on Ireland's throw and combine to disrupt the Scottish line-out as much as possible.
The Ireland scrum is a potential concern, particularly on the tighthead side. Martin Moore would have been a brave but interesting call to start ahead of Mike Ross, but Joe Schmidt has gone with experience in the front-row. Ross has struggled all season to adapt to the new engagement calls and if he cannot hold off the impressive Ryan Grant on the Scottish loose side, Ireland could be in trouble.
Grant is relatively inexperienced at this level, earning just his 14th international cap tomorrow, but he has been a powerhouse in the Glasgow Warriors scrum over the last two seasons and he will present a difficult challenge. Referee Craig Joubert needs little excuse to target a struggling prop – the Leinster man must stand his ground.
Injuries have played a part in Schmidt's selection this weekend but the competition for places is such that no player can afford to let an opportunity slip by. Ireland are too strong for the Scots up front – winning the forward battle should translate to clean, quick possession and space for the outside backs. With Tommy Bowe, Simon Zebo, Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald all missing, Dave Kearney and Andrew Trimble have a wonderful chance to impress.
Trimble's recall is deserved after some fine performances for Ulster in the Heineken Cup and his aerial ability is a huge advantage against a Scotland fly-half that loves to kick. If Trimble has a busy afternoon and attacks the ball with the ferocity he shows at Ravenhill he could be difficult to displace.
Jonathan Sexton's dominant performance for Racing Metro against Toulouse in the Top 14 last weekend bodes well for Ireland. His opposite number tomorrow, Duncan Weir, has struggled to shake off the challenge of Ruaridh Jackson at club and international level and Sexton should have too much experience for the young Glaswegian.
Paddy Jackson's errant kicking and poor game-management did enormous damage to Ireland's cause at Murrayfield in this fixture last year and it is quite puzzling, therefore, that the Ulster man has been selected ahead of Ian Madigan on the Ireland bench.
If the Wolfhounds game last week was a test run for some close calls, and Dan Tuohy's inclusion on the bench suggests that it was, how has Madigan missed out? The gaping holes in Jackson's overall game have yet to be properly addressed and, if Sexton gets injured, can Ireland rely on Jackson to kick goals? It is difficult to trust a player who is not first-choice kicker for his province.
Scotland's record on opening weekends in this competition is poor. The last time they won a first-round fixture was against France in 2006 and, while Scott Johnson has talked up his side's chances of an upset in Dublin, Ireland know victory is within their control. There will be moments in this championship where sublime skill or extraordinary intervention is required to dig out victory, but tomorrow is a day for setting a platform, getting the basics right and following Schmidt's instructions.
If Schmidt has aspirations of winning a championship title this year, Ireland must kick on from where they left off against New Zealand in November. Defeat against Scotland tomorrow is almost unthinkable but a feeble limp over the finishing line would be just as worrying.
Performance and victory are the criteria on which Ireland will be judged. Even at this early stage, there is no room for error.