It is widely assumed that Ireland and Scotland will be the teams that progress from Pool A to the quarter finals. There is the wild card that is Japan and how home advantage could cause them to create two upsets this tournament as opposed to their one historic victory in the last World Cup, but for most their money is on the two Celtic tigers to progress to the next round. What faces either of them is a rather intimidating quarter final prospect with either New Zealand or South Africa. On the basis of today’s dust up between the two Pool B Southern Hemisphere superpowers, you could argue that a quarter final date with South Africa would be marginally preferable to one with New Zealand. Consequently in a World Cup opener for Scotland and Ireland, the stakes could not be higher in a must win match scenario.
Despite the form that catapulted them to dizzying heights in 2018, seeming to have deserted them, Ireland still look the better placed of the two sides to have South Africa as opposed to New Zealand on their dance card in four weeks time. Scotland will bring plenty to the table tomorrow and are more than up to the task of ripping up Ireland’s preferred quarter final invitation, but they will need a performance of the ages to do it, despite Ireland’s recent wobbles. With Ireland having dispatched Six Nations Grand Slam Champions Wales twice over the summer at home and away, it could be argued they are the side with less to prove tomorrow. Yes we know there was that horror show at Twickenham, for which there is little or no explanation, but Ireland do seem to have moved on from that. However, it is Scotland who on their day can play a style of rugby akin to a Northern Hemisphere version of Fiji at full throttle. In short, there are no guarantees tomorrow.
Ireland vs Scotland – Sunday, September 22nd – Yokohama
Tomorrow is a must win match for both teams plain and simple. You could have argued that the teams might have been able to judge that call a bit better after watching today’s match between New Zealand and South Africa and deciding who they would rather face. However, this is the first match of a long tournament for both teams, and while the omens look good for both teams progressing to the semi-final, barring the threat that Japan could pose on home soil, we can’t help feeling that after today South Africa is the preferred quarter final opponent of choice for both teams. However, that’s not exactly a comforting thought. South Africa may have lost today and not looked as sharp and polished as New Zealand at times, but there is no denying they put up one hell of a fight! In short, New Zealand or South Africa are daunting potential opponents in your first kick at the knockout stages, and to be honest if we were Ireland or Scotland we’d want neither, as the likelihood of it all ending in tears is just too strong a possibility.
So the priorities tomorrow will be pretty simple for Ireland and Scotland – throw everything at each other including the kitchen sink and get the win, but in doing so avoid the types of injuries that invariably have caused Ireland to never get beyond the quarter finals in a World Cup, and Scotland only manage a semi-final once, way back in 1991.
It’s not quite Ireland’s best, but not far from it
For us there are three notable omissions for a game of such stature from an Irish point of view. Dan Leavy, but that was always going to be the case after that horrific injury earlier this year, and Rob Kearney and Keith Earls. With Kearney and Earls being wrapped in cotton wool for the quarter finals and beyond, should Ireland make a break with World Cup history, their omission is understandable even if they could have played this match. Scotland are going to put Ireland to the test under the high ball, and Ireland will miss their version of Israel Folau, as Rob Kearney sits this one out and Jordan Larmour gets his biggest chance to date to prove he is the future of Ireland’s 15 jersey. Andrew Conway may have more gas out wide than Keith Earls, but Earls sheer reliability and work rate is something that Ireland has found great comfort in when the chips are down. Otherwise this is Ireland at maximum strength and Scotland will have to be at their best to keep them in check. It’s a very good Scottish team, make no mistake, but Ireland if they click have the kind of cohesive pedigree in this match day 23 that could take them back to the glory days of 2018. Either way we’ll find out tomorrow if Ireland’s drop in form was simply a ruse to keep everyone guessing till Japan, or if the rest of the world really has got Ireland taped once and for all.
While Ireland need Rory Best’s leadership on the pitch, others will really need to take the mantle for the future tomorrow
Many have argued, ourselves included that second rower James Ryan is the future of the Irish captaincy. While he may be a little green around the edges, no pun intended, he is part of the leadership cadre that will need to step up to provide support to Rory Best who is clearly battling with the demands of the role at times in the twilight of his outstanding career. Others like Peter O’Mahony and Jonathan Sexton will also need to put their shoulder to the wheel over the coming weeks, as part of a watertight and cohesive collective Irish leadership, especially as this is something that Scotland seemed to have had more success in building. While we feel slightly treacherous in admitting this, we have to admit we felt that in terms of Ireland’s set pieces in their final warm up game with Wales, Hooker Niall Scannell made a better fist of it than Best, and when the Irish Captain did come on in the final quarter Ireland’s dominance of the game started to slip. While Best may still be the talisman to the squad, there are other players whose quiet leadership and skill sets now need to come to the fore.
Is Hamish Watson Scotland’s most important player?
In big crunch matches like this, we’d argue yes. As most readers know we are huge fans of the Scottish wrecking ball, as he is just everywhere on the park for Scotland. If Scotland need a talisman on Sunday, then Watson embodies it by the bucket load. We regard Watson as the Northern Hemisphere’s version of New Zealand’s Ardie Savea, and we’d argue you’d be hard pressed to top that as a compliment. Sure Scotland have some genuine game changers and play makers in the likes of Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and the secret tactical nuclear missile they keep on the bench in the shape of winger Darcy Graham, but for us nobody epitomizes the surprise package of frenetic pace and skill that Scotland have become better than Hamish Watson. Whenever he gets the ball, Scotland experience a sea change in momentum, and Ireland will need to work hard at keeping the dynamic forward in check.
Sexton needs to develop the kind of relationship with Stockdale that Damian Penaud and Antoine Dupont showed today for France
If you watched arguably the day’s most exciting match, that between France and Argentina, then that partnership between Penaud and Dupont was a thing of beauty. Penaud knows how to use space and Dupont knows how to put him there. Ireland’s key play maker fly half Jonathan Sexton and winger Jacob Stockdale will need to develop a similar relationship tomorrow and for the rest of the tournament. When Sexton does bring out his first choice set of conducting batons, Ireland veritably hum and speed and space merchants like Andrew Conway, Jordan Larmour but especially Jacob Stockdale shine. We haven’t seen much of it to be honest so far from Ireland and Sexton in 2019, and Stockdale has been ominously quiet for much of the year, but you know it’s there if Ireland can get it right. Having watched South Africa’s Cheslin Kolbe carve huge chunks of space out of the New Zealand defence today seemingly at will, then Ireland need to start practicing for whoever their dance partner may end up being come the quarter finals.
It may be damp tomorrow in Yokohama which may make ball handling a nightmare, especially given the humidity. Apparently both teams have been practicing chucking balls around lathered in shampoo, baby oil etc so they should be in good stead to handle the conditions. Both these teams, but Scotland in particular, love to run and we hope the conditions don’t stifle this ambition too much. Either way it should be a highly charged and entertaining high stakes spectacle. Hard to call, but on paper this does look like the Irish side that turned the rugby world upside down last year, with Scotland perhaps relishing the underdog tag, albeit one loaded with X-factor. A tough contest in store but one which a better drilled and perhaps more comprehensively coached Irish side should clinch by 8 points!