Ireland head into the 2017 Six Nations Championship in the unenviable position of being tournament favourites. After a disappointing 2015/2016 season, The Joe Show is back in full swing and Schmidt’s team have plenty going in their favour. They’re coming off the back of a maiden victory over New Zealand (their greatest ever achievement), the bulk suppliers of their squad, Leinster and Munster, are back at the top table in Europe, and the vast majority of their players are fit and firing.
Sean Cronin is a loss because he is a vital impact substitute, but Ireland have enough options at hooker to keep them going, with Niall Scannell and James Tracy both improving rapidly. The lingering doubts around Johnny Sexton’s fitness are ever-present (him being ruled out of the Scotland clash seems to be more precautionary than anything else) and Seán O’Brien is, again, carrying a niggle. However, neither would have been included in Joe Schmidt’s squad if they weren’t close to a return, and it’s worth remembering that Ireland beat Australia two months ago without either player available. Although Peter O’Mahony’s absence is significant, Ireland have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to loose forwards.
Schmidt has tough choices to make in the back row and the back three, and he could do without having the expectations of the country on his shoulders. A Grand Slam and a World Cup semi-final still have to be ticked off his to-do list with Ireland, and while he will have to wait until 2019 to have another crack at the latter, not having achieved the former in three attempts undoubtedly gnaws at a coach who isn’t content until his players deliver silverware to him.
Even though there are a number of players in Ireland’s squad who could end up having a huge impact, the one to watch is Garry Ringrose. Jared Payne kept him out of the team this time twelve months ago, but the Ulsterman’s worrying kidney injury has opened the door for Ireland’s brightest talent. 17 years ago, we watched on as a young Irish centre set the tournament alight with levels of class, skill and awareness beyond his years, and barring injury, Ringrose is poised to do the same.
He has tough challenges ahead, with Jonathan Davies, Jonathan Joseph, Gaël Fickou and Michele Campagnaro having already proven themselves at Test level, not to mention the emergence of the creative Huw Jones for Scotland. Each player will put Ringrose’s physicality and defensive reading of the game under intense scrutiny, but he gave a good account of himself in those facets of play against southern hemisphere opposition in November, and you’d back him to do the same again.
The Ireland-England game has been billed as a Grand Slam decider since the end of the November Tests, but looking ahead of what’s in front of them has undone Ireland in the past. They will have to overcome big obstacles before the final weekend, notwithstanding having France at home. Guy Novès has waved his magic wand with Les Bleus, and getting a win over his homeland is enough incentive for Conor O’Shea to perform another miracle with Italy. Ireland haven’t beaten Wales in three years (outside of a World Cup warm-up where both teams were vastly understrength), and even without Warren Gatland at the helm, their resolve is far greater in Cardiff than it is away.
Each of those teams will be examined in turn, but first up its Scotland, who are backboned by a Glasgow side that have reached the quarter-finals of Europe for the first time ever by playing with buckets of skill and imagination.
The New Zealand Influence
The Montpellier-bound Vern Cotter has nothing to lose and is likely going to instruct his team to throw the kitchen sink at their opponents in every round, so a high-tempo, offloading game plan, much like the one they used in November, will be the order of the day. Gone are the days of Graeme Morrison, Joe Ansbro and Sean Lamont trundling into the nearest tackler; Scotland have threats across the park and there are key areas that Ireland will have to address if they want to start their Championship with a win.
Up front, they Gray brothers are in the form of their lives; Jonny is fast approaching world class status as a hard-grafting workhorse with a consistently high tackle count, and Richie is carrying out the midfield offloading role with aplomb for Toulouse this season:
It’s not just around the park where the Gray brothers can trouble Ireland. Jonny can be quite disruptive at the front of the lineout, and Richie has been a prolific aerial competitors for years now.
In terms of what they do in open play, both players have high skill levels, and this is partly why there has been an increase in interplay between forwards and backs in Scotland’s performances. As effective as offloading can be, there’s a degree of risk that goes with it. Teams who look to pass the ball out of contact tend to make several errors, with the exception of New Zealand, because it’s such a tough skill to master.
These errors occur because, during that split second when the ball carrier gets their hands free but before the pass is released, a strong enough collision will dislodge the ball from their grasp. It’s the reason why some coaches prohibit the use of it, and if Ireland can time a second-man tackle correctly when the Scottish players do go for the offload, they could give themselves turnover ball to work with throughout the game, or scrums in advantageous positions.
The other issue with offloading is that it requires the carrier to hold the ball out in front of them (making rip tackles a possibility), and to go upright into contact, leaving them vulnerable to the choke tackle. Ireland were the first team to start using this tactic back in 2011 under Les Kiss, and they remain the standard-bearers at it. An offload can be difficult for a defence to recover from, but there are ways of turning it into a weakness and what Ireland do in and around the tackle zone will be of interest.
Vern Cotter’s policy of selecting two opensides in the back row is as much out of necessity as it is tactical, with Scotland experiencing something of a dearth of quality at 6 at the moment. Alasdair Strokosch retired after RWC 2015, Kelly Brown hasn’t been able to rediscover his 2010 form, and Rob Harley has shown himself to be a limited Test player. Adam Ashe is a competent ball carrier, but always looks uncomfortable with the extra defensive duties that are placed on blindside flankers.
Having John Barclay and either Hamish Watson or John Hardie in the starting XV means that Scotland have their form back rowers on the pitch, and it also gives them the best possible chance of slowing down the opposition ball. Barclay in particular has impressed on the ground with the Scarlets this season, imposing himself at the breakdown and winning turnovers against top class operators like Schalk Burger and Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe.
This is where Ireland’s back row selection could determine the outcome of the game. With Peter O’Mahony ruled out, CJ Stander and Jamie Heaslip are guaranteed to start at 6 and 8 respectively, but choosing an openside is going to be a balancing act for Ireland’s head coach. Seán O’Brien’s injury problem makes picking him against Scotland a risk, given the amount of work he’s going to have to get through at the breakdown. Bending at the waist and clearing other players off the ball will place a lot of strain on his calf, potentially putting the rest of the tournament in jeopardy.
The next player in line at 7 for Ireland, Josh van der Flier, is more of a natural groundhog than O’Brien to begin with, and despite being in the early stages of his career, he’s not an unknown quantity; he started opposite David Pocock and Michael Hooper when Ireland played Australia last November, in what was his fifth cap, and went on to win man of the match. He should be capable of handling whatever the Scottish flankers throw at him, and O’Brien’s bulk will be crucial against bigger French and English packs further down the road.
Ireland’s dominance over Scotland in 2016 could largely be attributed to Finn Russell not being in their matchday squad. Duncan Weir did his best Craig Gower impression and Ireland didn’t have to do anything other than wait for him to make mistakes in order to win. Greig Laidlaw wasn’t at the races that day, and nothing that the rest of their team did could compensate for the high error count from the Scottish half-backs. This time round, Russell is not only fit to play, he’s been tearing it up at club level:
With the ability to manufacture moments of brilliance like this, Ireland have to shut him down quickly every time the ball gets into his hands, and Laidlaw isn’t going to underperform again. Reducing the influence that these two players have won’t win the game for Ireland, but they won’t come away with a win if Scotland’s decision-makers are afforded time on the ball.
Outside of Russell, there is an abundance of pace and skill in the Scottish back line. Stuart Hogg draws attention from spectators and defences alike and the finishing ability of Tim Visser and Sean Maitland have been in evidence for some time now, but Tommy Seymour is arguably the most potent attacking weapon (after Russell) in Scotland’s ranks at present. His all-round excellence has been central to Glasgow’s entertaining brand of rugby this season, and he is rightly being spoken about as a Lions contender. Huw Jones, too, has added a new dimension to Scotland’s attack with an incisive outside break, and when these players work in tandem, they can unlock any defence:
Scotland’s fliers will provide a stern test for Garry Ringrose, and Schmidt may select his wingers based on their defensive capabilities. Simon Zebo is certain to start, with his defensive reads having progressed, and Andrew Trimble’s bone-shuddering hits may see him get the nod on the other wing.
What Scotland do with ball in hand isn’t founded entirely on talented individuals. Their attacking shape has seen the biggest improvements out of all areas of their game under Vern Cotter, and has come a long way since the dross they produced 5 or 6 years ago, when their offensive play consisted solely of shovelling the ball along one line of attack, with no variation in the depth or running angle of the support player. In the below example, they use a complex first-phase pattern to engage the Australian defence, creating space in behind which they exploit:
The positioning of Maitland right on Russell’s shoulder commits the forwards at the end of the lineout as well as the first player in the Australian back line, David Pocock in this case (who can actually be seen gesturing towards Maitland to alert his fellow defenders to the threat of an inside pass to the winger), preventing them from pushing out onto Russell to apply pressure. The triangle shape outside Russell is designed to fix the Australian midfield, and then having Huw Jones stand flat just beyond that shape draws the last Australian defender infield. Having these three things in place forces the Australian defenders to rush up, leaving the space in behind that Scotland are looking for.
The chip from Russell is executed perfectly and Jones shows impressive pace to gather and race free, but if Scotland had decided pass instead of kicking, they had multiple options: a cut-out pass to Jones, pull-back pass or inside ball between the players in the triangle shape, and by sucking in so many defenders, they created space on the far side for Tim Visser, who is lethal when he gets the ball in those situations.
They may have learned how to score tries, but Scotland’s defence still has more holes than a Donald Trump argument, and their first-up tackling is as bad now as it was under Andy Robinson. If Ireland hold on to the ball for long periods like they did in their last set of games, gaps will appear:
The above example highlights one of Scotland’s biggest defensive weaknesses. Stephen Moore ghosts through a gap on Zander Fagerson’s inside shoulder because the tighthead isn’t quick enough to rush up and put him under pressure. The current Scottish props are renowned for their scrummaging technique, but they’re not particularly mobile. Moore isn’t that quick compared to other Test hookers like Dane Coles or Sean Cronin, and he has no business breaking the first line of the defence. The opportunity was afforded to him because Fagerson was too slow in his effort to close down the space, meaning that Hamish Watson had to stretch across despairingly in an attempt to get a hold of the Australian captain.
Greig Laidlaw standing on the wing instead of sweeping in behind makes matters worse, but the line break could have been avoided if Fagerson had been quicker off the mark. Allan Dell, Gordon Reid and Simon Berghan aren’t sprightly either, and this is why teams get so much change out of Scotland when carrying into the space either side of the first two defenders out from the ruck.
Scotland also struggle when the other team move the ball wide. In the below example, Australia have an overlap on the right hand side two phases after the Moore break:
Being a man short is not an ideal scenario for any defence. There are ways around it, though; a simple drift across would have given them a decent chance of snuffing out the danger. Instead, Alex Dunbar rushes up for the intercept, which isn’t a bad idea, because Bernard Foley’s pass spends a long time in the air, but the misunderstanding between Dunbar and Tim Visser hurts Scotland badly.
Instead of pushing out to cover Reece Hodge and Dane Haylett-Petty, Visser runs towards Israel Folau as well, when doing so makes absolutely no difference. If Dunbar had picked off the pass, he could have used Visser to stay further out to run a support line; if not, he would have needed him to put pressure on the players outside Folau. There seemed to be no organisation between the players in this instance, no orders being barked out by Dunbar or anyone else, and that lack of synchronisation is a recurring theme in Scotland’s defensive errors.
Retaining the ball against a team who scrap for possession so effectively is easier said than done, but Ireland need to rack up as many tries as possible because, bonus point system aside, this year’s tournament could well come down to a tiebreaker. The level of control that Conor Murray has exerted on Champions Cup games is an absolute must (especially without Johnny Sexton alongside him) because, up until recently, Irish teams have struggled in Murrayfield. A fast start is required if this Ireland team are serious about winning a Grand Slam.