When it comes to playing teams who hold on to the ball for long periods and make good use of it (Leinster, Clermont, the Exeter Chiefs, the All Blacks), there’s a maxim that always gets rolled out by spectators and commentators: “just don’t give them the ball”. The theory behind it is sound; if the side in question don’t have possession, they can’t get their multi-phase game going, but the reality isn’t that simple. There are times in rugby when you have to kick the ball because holding on to it puts your team under pressure. If you claim a restart in your own 22 and then attempt to keep putting the ball through the hands and make a mistake in the process of doing so, you’re going to have to put in a serious defensive shift to get out of trouble.
Where the above idea becomes a smart option against a side who like to play keep-ball is between the 22’s, because unless the team you’re playing have a back three who are poor in the air or have bad positional sense (and neither of those things could be said about Sean Maitland, Tommy Seymour or Stuart Hogg), hoofing the ball downfield plays right into their hands. Retaining possession has as much to do with keeping the error count low as it does with not kicking errantly, and Ireland weren’t exactly perfect at either against Scotland last year.
Asking For It
The pivotal moment in the previous fixture between Ireland and Scotland was the counter-attack from Hogg from deep in his own half that almost led to a sensational try for the visitors:
It was a brilliant piece of goalkeeping from Johnny Sexton to force a bad pass from Huw Jones, but if the ball had gone to its intended recipient, Scotland would have taken the lead and probably gotten the impetus to push on and win the Test. What happened in the above example should be enough of a warning for Ireland not to repeat the same inaccurate kicks; Scotland haven’t changed their approach to the game since that day, and are happy to run the ball from anywhere:
The same goes for errors in the set-piece and phase play; Ireland beat Scotland by a significant margin 11 months ago, but they made their fair share of mistakes throughout the game that could have been costly:
As close to their own try line as these errors occurred, Scotland will have no problem running the ball back at Ireland from that part of the field. One could argue that it was easy for Scotland to do this at the weekend against an Italian side who defended terribly on the day, but they did the same last November against a South African team who beat New Zealand two months earlier. Belief in their skills and try-scoring ability are key components of Scotland’s playing philosophy under Gregor Townsend, and they’re not going to drop either of those this week.
The other area of concern for Ireland this weekend is their defensive system. Narrow alignment off the ball was the main reason for their loss to Scotland in Murrayfield two years ago, and this issue cropped up again when they were defeated by England:
The Scottish back three are as potent offensively as the English wide men were, and they continue to give opposing teams headaches when they move the ball past outside centre:
Finn Russell has been in mesmeric form for Racing 92, and will gleefully run Ireland around in circles if they let him. Scotland might not have the heavy artillery up front to hurt Ireland in the tight phases, but if Joe Schmidt’s side are any way sluggish or disorganised when Scotland have the ball, they will pay the price again. The loss in Murrayfield two years ago should be fresh enough in the memory to prevent it from happening again, but only if Ireland bring the levels of aggression in defence that they have become renowned for under Andy Farrell.
Similar to what England did to Ireland last Saturday, Ireland will be looking to get as many hammer blows in on Scotland as possible to soften them up for later in the game. Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the Irish pack, will be seething at not getting the usual return from trucking the ball up, and if that frustration can be channelled correctly, the Scottish pack could be in for a long afternoon.
They made this happen last year in the Aviva Stadium, using their size advantage in the forwards to wear Scotland down incrementally with hard, direct carries:
These types of collisions might not seem particularly impressive in terms of yards made after contact, but if you can do them enough times against a smaller pack (on top of putting the squeeze on them in the scrum and maul), they pay dividends later on. Devin Toner is a big loss in this regard, as his work in the set-piece is often the point of difference, but Quinn Roux has been picked to replicate what Toner does at tight, and Seán O’Brien being selected at 7 is a clear indicator that Ireland are going try grounding Scotland into the dirt.
Chris Farrell’s selection at 13 is injury-enforced, but there’s no question that Ireland’s game plan will involve both him and Bundee Aki making mincemeat of the Scottish centres to complement what will hopefully a total destruction of their pack. I don’t think we’re going to see much in the way of guile from either of the Irish midfield. Flat passes from Sexton to one or the other running at pace in a straight line will be the order of the day, and although it might not be easy on the eye, it gets the best out of their strengths.
As last year’s game between these sides progressed, Scotland became slower to get back into position defensively and the intensity of their tackling dropped noticeably, allowing Ireland to develop continuity in attack, thereby putting the Scottish scramble defence under intense pressure:
The support play from Ireland once they get in behind is good in the above examples, but you can see Scotland hanging on for dear life to put the Irish ball-carriers to ground. I don’t think Ireland got as much out of these situations as they could have done last year, but they did enough to get the bonus point, and that was all that mattered in the end.
If the same opportunities present themselves this time round, though, Ireland need to rack up as many tries as they can, because there is every chance that this tournament may come down to tiebreakers. John Cooney thrives when faced with lagging defences, and if all goes according to plan for Ireland, the Ulster scrum-half should continue his rich vein of form and exploit any spaces left around the ruck by a battered and bruised Scottish pack.
Getting Back Into The Fight
A convincing win over Scotland on their home patch won’t win Ireland this Championship, but it could be the beginning of a journey towards redemption (and possibly silverware) for them. Even though there will be bigger challenges in this tournament (the Wales game in Cardiff is going to be a tough ask), victory this Saturday would provide a vital confidence boost.
It’s arrogance to think about a bonus point before aiming for a win first, but considering that they are facing an uphill battle already, Ireland will be setting their sights high for their other games in this Championship. There’s no doubt that Schmidt will be stressing the importance of focusing on the processes that are required to win, but somewhere in the back of his mind, he will be aware of the fact that getting as many table points out of each remaining Test is now a necessity.