This has become an increasingly tasty fixture in the last few years, and at Murrayfield it seems to develop an extra layer of intensity. Ireland travel to Edinburgh fresh off an impressive dismantling of a rather poor Italian side, while Scotland will be fuming at their enforced abstinence from Six Nations rugby as a result of their Round 3 match with France being postponed due to COVID-19 transgressions by Les Bleus. Ireland have finally got some continuity in their play and the match against Italy was by far their best performance in quite some time. However, by the same token it was also arguably Italy’s worst performance to date under Coach Franco Smith, so it’s hard to judge where Ireland really are at. Perhaps a more important yardstick is their narrow loss to tournament favorites France in Round 2. Ireland ran the French very close and the Italian game seemed to refine the systems that seemed to work so well against Les Bleus. Against Scotland they simply have to click, as Coach Gregor Townsend is a fielding a side that is perhaps one of the finest Scottish sides seen in a long time, and one which is technically still in the hunt for Six Nations silverware if the two current front runners Wales and France slip up in the final two rounds.
Scotland may have lost some momentum and the 1 point loss to Wales in their most recent outing must have been hard to swallow. However, we’d argue that it is an exceptionally competent squad that runs out against Ireland on Sunday and one which has had plenty of time to prepare for what should be a challenging encounter. Scotland will have done their homework and seem to thrive much better on spur of the moment opportunism than Ireland. Scotland seem to relish creating an unstructured game that opposition sides struggle to stamp their game plans on. The Scots in turn seem to have this canny ability to then turn the resulting chaos into a series of exquistely crafted attacking chances. In short, almost impossible to read, especially their impish playmaker fly half Finn Russell, Scotland pose a real conundrum for any side trying to organise their defences. Ireland will do their best to starve Scotland of possession whilst exhausting their backline defences. Scotland in turn will try and ensure that Ireland are forced to be constantly second guessing themselves. Two contrasting playing styles should make for 80 minutes of high octane rugby entertainment.
Scotland vs Ireland – Sunday, March 14th – Edinburgh
Perhaps more than anything Sunday’s match will show us if Ireland have finally turned a corner under Coach Andy Farrell. Scotland may have lost some momentum due to having to sit out round three courtesy of France’s COVID-19 indiscretions, but there is still no denying that it’s a quality Scottish outfit that takes to the field on Sunday, and one which we have a pretty good understanding of what they are capable of achieving. For Ireland the jury is still out despite the narrow loss to France and the emphatic thumping of Italy. Consistency is still not a core value in the Irish camp whereas Scotland seem to have that aspect of their preparations under control. Scotland are almost the finished product while Ireland are still finalizing their blueprints.
Statistically the two sides are evenly matched even though Ireland have an extra game under their belt. A weak point in Scotland’s armor in the past has been their performance in the set pieces, however of late they have made massive improvements and can hold their own with the best teams when it comes to this aspect of their game. Given their confidence in both structured and unstructured play, it would appear they are the favourites going into Sunday’s match as Ireland are still more comfortable when play follows a rhythm and pace that they can control. We’d argue Scotland are better at adapting to and coping with Plan B than their Irish counterparts and it will be fascinating to see what kind of game unfolds on Sunday and who copes better at dealing with the unexpected.
An enviable dilemma
If you were Irish Coach Andy Farrell, the great Hooker debate must really be wearing out his pencils when drawing up his teamsheets. Do you pick the veteran Herring or the young upstart Kelleher? Given the degree of unpredictability of his opponents on Sunday, we’d have thought that Kelleher was a safer bet given his ability to react to the unexpected as evidenced by his single handed opportunistic try against France. Herring may have more experience but Kelleher is the more dynamic player. Herring’s dart throwing in the lineouts may be more consistent than Kelleher’s but given Paul O’Connell’s work with the team in this year’s Championship there should be enough talent to cover for what mistakes the younger player is likely to make come lineout time. In addition with Will Conors, Tadgh Beirne, James Ryan and Ian Henderson in the line, he has four fairly massive targets to hit even if his throwing is not as accurate as Herring’s. If Ireland start to wobble come lineout time as they did in the opening round against Wales, then expect to see Kelleher sooner rather than later, as he would appear better placed to handle the clean up role if the lineouts aren’t working.
You CANNOT be serious????
If you were like us you would have shared Irish second rower Ian Henderson’s gobsmacked expression of disbelief when his perfectly legitimate try was disallowed against Italy by French TMO Romain Poite two weeks ago in Rome. Imagine Henderson’s reaction when he saw Romain Poite pencilled in as the official in charge for Sunday’s encounter. It may be one of the most fascinating subplots of the weekend, as no doubt Henderson will be going out of his way to demonstrate the finer points of the game to Poite, while Poite no doubt will be placing Henderson under increased scrutiny as a result. The mark of the professional as a player and as a referee will be on the line Sunday and both individuals will need to be at their best while avoiding tripping over each other in their efforts to prove a point.
The Dynamic Duo
Scotland’s back row duo of Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson are in their element in broken play and both love nothing more than a good turnover. They will be ably assisted by Matt Fagerson on Sunday who is arguably becoming Scotland’s find of the season so far. It’s a very effective trio up against an equally impressive Irish offering, especially in the shape of Tadgh Beirne who is clearly set to be Ireland’s player of the tournament. However, going back to the chaos theory mentioned earlier it’s the Scots, particularly Ritchie and Watson who seem to thrive on it. Ireland in Will Conors and CJ Stander offer a more traditional approach to back row play, with Beirne providing that stroke of creativity when you need it. But it’s the Scots who would appear to be the all action duo and operate at a pace that would make a troupe of whirling dervishes dizzy. There should be some absolutely outstanding contests in this part of the park on Sunday and many of the game’s key moments will be won and lost here.
A welcome return
One of the architects of that remarkable second half comeback by Scotland against England at Twickenham a few years ago was Scottish centre Sam Johnson. Plagued by injury since then, but now apparently fully fit, Scotland will be expecting big things from him and replacement centre Huw Jones. Two highly talented players who can be real game breakers for their team, but who sadly have simply not had a chance to shine in the last year. Scotland will be up against an exceptionally capable Irish offering in the centre of the park in the shape of Robbie Henshaw and Gary Ringrose, but will really want to make a statement here, especially to open up opportunities for their world class back line of Hogg, Maitland and van der Merwe. Much like the battles taking place around the rucks, the game could well be won or lost in the centre channels on Sunday.
Often overlooked but rarely undercooked
Irish centre Garry Ringrose has been compared to the great Brian O’Driscoll for his silky attacking play, but in our opinion it’s his defensive work in the centre channels which gets overlooked but is so vital to Ireland’s success when they are on song. Pay close attention on Sunday to Ringrose’s defensive positioning and you’ll see he rarely misses his mark as well as reading the ebb and flow of a game brilliantly. Always in the right place at the right time, we’d argue he is perhaps one of the best defensive Test centres playing the game right now. Sure people will focus on his outstanding runs and line breaks, but there is no question that what he does for Ireland defensively is just as if not more important. He will be key to shutting down the threat posed by Scotland’s Sam Johnson and Huw Jones as well as spoiling the party for Russell, Hogg and van der Merwe. If he has a good day, Scotland will find that creativity they crave and excel at producing may be nothing more than an exercise in frustration.
We’ll be honest and say that this is one of those rare matches where we find it almost impossible to predict a winner. This one really could go either way – these sides are that close. If we have to hang our hats somewhere though we’d give it to Scotland by the slightest of margins. Whatever happens by the time referee Romain Poite blows the final whistle, we’re fairly confident we’ll have been treated to a memorable 80 minutes of Six Nations rugby. Two talented teams with contrasting styles and everything to play for should be able to put on quite the show provided the elements cooperate. In short a recipe for excitement awaits. Make sure you set your clocks forward an hour on Saturday night and your alarms for 11 AM Eastern on Sunday so you don’t miss what should be a very worthy finale to a superb Six Nations weekend! Stay safe everyone and until next weekend here’s a little retrospective on perhaps the greatest comeback ever seen in the Six Nations, by you guessed it – Ireland’s hosts on Sunday.