Revenge Of The Alistairs?

Scotland are on the up, powered by youngsters like Gray, Denton and Hogg and steeled by a couple of captains in Ford and Barclay.

The attacking threat posed by the Scots on Saturday is sharper than it has been for a number of years; no Irish fan should underestimate the task in hand. Even before Ireland suffered the loss of O’Connell, Murray and O’Brien, their opponents had shown with their last display that they would be a handful.

Hungry for a victory, playing to a disciplined pattern and unfortunate not to have a more favourable refereeing experience, the Scottish performance against France ultimately threatened more than it delivered. With that said, it has been a long while since Robinson’s team have proposed that sort of threat … and they did so despite suffering the injury losses of Mike Blair and Rory Lamont and the religious unavailability of Euan Murray. The latter’s absence meant that they could not maintain field position throughout the last twenty minutes because of the total superiority of the French front-row against their decidedly second-division Scottish counterparts.

The Scottish performance contained the highest number of passes in this year’s championship, albeit that handling conditions were excellent – unlike in Stade de France last Sunday, when crucial handling errors probably cost Ireland a victory.

Here at Mole Towers we have been scratching around trying to figure out a coherent game plan to take on this Scottish team. The Irish strengths appear to be self-evident:

  • a back three playing well, with Kearney and Bowe almost back to the top of their attacking games;
  • a half-back pairing comfortable in each other’s presence and very confident in each other’s reading of the game;
  • a front-row, now recognised as a good set-piece unit, with two mobile ball carriers; and
  • a back-row containing two world class players and a hungry first cap with a hard edge.

On the other hand the Scots are bringing their own assortment of gifts to this party:

  • a back three, of whom two have real broken field running ability;
  • a mid-field which relishes the prospect of creating turnover opportunities for their back-row by means of fast aggressive line-speed and big hits;
  • two half-backs who are happy to interchange roles and create individual line breaks;
  • three giant second-rows [substitute and former captain Alistair Kellock would comfortably make this Irish team] who are good with the ball in hand, strong in ruck and maul and a handful at line-outs; and
  • arguably the most effective back-row unit of the tournament to date [and that includes comparison with the wunderkinds from Wales].

Declan Kidney's teams have struggled badly in Lansdowne Road, and he managed to drop a Triple Crown over the line in the 2010 game against Scotland at Croker. Ireland have only won one of the last three matches between the sides, which isn't representative of their respective records in either the Six Nations or in the recent World Cup in New Zealand. Injuries and circumstance have been a little unkind over recent weeks, but the Irish rugby public have grown impatient with a schizophrenic team that doesn't often deliver on its talent.

Also contributing their party pieces will be the two most conservative national coaches in the Northern Hemisphere, each with very particular reasons to want a win badly from this game. Declan Kidney needs a win in front of a full house in Aviva to begin to chart upwards with the prospect of a St Patrick’s Day celebration in Twickenham and then, hopefully, a summer journey to claim a first victory against the All Blacks. Despite a gritty and at times excellent performance against France last week, he has only won one of his three games so far this tournament.

Robinson, his reputation somewhat redeemed by the performance against France, just needs a win – any win. His team’s victory two years ago in Croke Park burst many balloons of Irish confidence and meant that our odyssey in that hallowed field was topped and tailed by defeat.

In Mole Towers have as many views on the likely style of the game as they have on the possible outcome. There is little consensus. Maybe we’re over-rating the Scots on the back of one good performance against France – after all, they were pretty dreadful against England. On the other hand, Ireland have hardly set the world alight either, with one win from three games and a late flurry against a tent-folding Italian side making things look rosier than they really are. In order to come up with at least a cogent understanding of the match, we’ve settled on a unit-by-unit appraisal.

Back Three

Rob Kearney has become Ireland's backline leader in the absence of Brian O'Driscoll. The French gave him every chance to shine with a poorly thought-out kicking strategy, but the Louth man has varied his counter-attacking policy better this season under the tutelage of Joe Schmidt at Leinster.

The Irish unit is possibly the strongest in the team: Rob Kearney is right back up near his peak form, and Tommy Bowe [relatively under the radar in comparison to Christ Ashton in 2011 and Shane Williams in 2008] is on course to tie or break the Six Nations single tournament try-scoring record. With five tries in three appearances thus far, Bowe just needs one more to draw level with Ashton and Ickle Shane. On the Scottish side, Stuart Hogg excites and another game like his French performance would propel his career path skywards. Lamont can be a loose cannon or a fearsome mid-field invader but can never be under-estimated. Jones has defensive positional weaknesses not yet been exposed in the 6N. Advantage Ireland

Midfield 

Graeme Morrison has made hay in the Irish midfield before, but Sexton's defensive performance against France showed that he's not the swinging door that O'Gara has been in the outhalf channel.

De Luca had the best Six Nations game of his career against the French when he arrived to replace Rory Lamont. He has had some absolute horror shows in Scottish colors over the years, so it was an enjoyable surprise to see him deliver on the big stage. Morrison loves hard collisions and relishes taking the ball into contact against Darcy whom he knows well from Celtic League, Heineken Cup and Six Nations encounters over almost a decade. D’arcy has done a job on bigger, more skillful opposite numbers in the past [Jean de Villiers and Yannick Jauzion, for example], but for some reason Morrison gives him fits. Darcy and Earls have both demonstrated individual bravery and skill this season without every suggesting they are a partnership. Advantage Scotland

Sexton and Reddan were a potent starting combination in Ireland's best performances of 2011, against England in the Six Nations and against the Wallabies in RWC11.

Half Backs

The Mole believes that Sexton does not yet feel truly comfortable in the green jersey. However, with club partner Reddan inside and an Aviva audience ready to be appreciative, this could be the game that he settles into the shirt and conducts proceedings. Blair and Laidlaw are two more in the line of Scottish half-backs who reserve their best for the international stage. Both slight of build but quick of foot and brain, they provide opportunity with impunity if given any leeway. Advantage Ireland

Front-Row 

Ross has gone head-to-head with JB Poux and Gethin Jenkins and come out in fine fettle. Given the amount of ink and spittle spent on Ireland's scrummaging woes in last days of the Hayes/Buckley era, it's surprising that he's not getting more credit for his efforts.

Mike Ross has quietly become the bedrock of this Irish pack. Once Paul O’Connell dropped out from injury, Ross became the first name down on the team-sheet … yep, even ahead of Kearney and Ferris. Ross went head-to-head with one of the best technical scrummagers in the northern hemisphere in JB Poux and came out honours even, or maybe a little ahead. His eighty minute performance against France demonstrates that his nerdish devotion to technique is well justified and he could have a field day against Jacobson and assist Best in inflicting on Ross Ford the sort of suffering that Servat administered in the final twenty-five minutes against France. Healy should have sufficient energy this week to play a crucial role in ball carrying, although he’ll have to deal with a renewed challenge from Euan Murray off the bench at some stage of the second half. Advantage Ireland

Second-Row 

Donnacha Ryan gets a deserved start in the Six Nations, but he has been asked to step into some huge shoes against a good pairing. He should have got a start alongside O'Connell, rather than O'Callaghan.

Woe is me and the prospects of this Irish second-row do not fill our hearts with anything but anxiety. Two front-jumping labourers who have to try to replicate the gargantuan efforts of Ireland’s finest forward of a generation. On the other hand, Richie Gray appears a nailed on certainty for Lions’ selection next year and Jim “Big Chum” Hamilton has improved his mobility, tackling and handling by leaps and bounds over the past two seasons. Big Chum is a big tough dude, and while The Mole is actually quite a fan of Donnacha Ryan [who should have had his first Six Nations start before now], it takes more than making a mean face at a camera to be an enforcer. Can you imagine Big Chum being lifted up and dropped on his head by his opposite man? [Big] Advantage Scotland

Back-Row 

Denton and Rennie have both won Man of the Match awards in losing efforts – it ain't too often that happens. It's going to be very interesting to see how the two backrows work against each other.

This could, as so often in the past between these two teams, be the area which decides the game. Denton has impressed in every game he has played at this level, whilst Barclay and rangy substitute Richie Vernon produced immense second-half performance against the French. Rennie, the out and out No 7, is another likely Lion next year, although he will probably have to play second fiddle to prospective Captain Sam on that journey. On the other hand Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip have both had superb spells in their last three games [it’s quickly forgotten, but Heaslip was probably Ireland’s best forward against Wales] and one senses that they are only a fraction away from having a totally dominant impact on some Six Nations game this season. If O’Mahony lives up to anything of the Munster hype – and so far it is hype, because he has got two significant opportunities off the bench and hasn’t really done all that much on the pitch yet – he will have a serious effect. However, he must keep his discipline: a skill, he has already demonstrated, which does not come naturally to him. Evens 

Subs Bench

Despite the presence of one of The Mole’s unsung heroes in Shane Jennings, the Irish bench does not inspire. The Scots have at least two players we would be happy to have available for our squad in Murray and Kellock. In Tomás O’Leary, Ireland have a player we would like to see on the Scottish bench.  Advantage Scotland

Coaching & Substitution 

Whether it was the experience of RWC2011 or just the experience of seeing the impact of fresh players that he trusts, Kidney has used his bench more wisely this season than ever in the past. Robinson is still largely wedded to the idea that substitutions are to replace players who are injured or too tired to continue. Tactical substitutions are what happen in SAS movies. Advantage Ireland

Thoughts? Comments?*

Not a contrived result but indicative of a very close game, well within the margin of polling error. What we haven’t factored in is NZ referee Chris Pollock, who will be handling his first 6 Nations game. Nor has any account been taken of the “Aviva factor” because here in Mole Towers we’re not yet convinced it is relevant when Ireland is playing. Both of these elements should benefit a home team and, if they do, would swing the margin sufficiently to alter the outcome. But, it will be evident that nobody in Mole Towers is offering any side-bets with margin!

*[With a nod to Rob Hilton on the eve of Le Crunch!]

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