The final game scheduled for round four of the 2023 Guinness Six Nations tournament (weather permitting) looks a standout. A rejuvenated Scotland face an Ireland who sit on top of the championship standings. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the fixture.
Scotland without Gilchrist still represent a huge challenge for Ireland
Scotland come into this test match with confidence unaffected given their Paris performance. Their resilience to get back into the game in Paris will have pleased the team management, supporters and squad no end. The scoreline was harsh given the second and third quarter performances which had France defensively unnerved.
How do Scotland beat Ireland?
Scotland need to start the game on the front foot. The slow start against Wales was not punished in round two but a tentative start compounded by the Grant Gilchrist’s red card in Paris was a decisive factor in the outcome. All the excellent attacking rugby in the second and third quarters was playing catchup. This cannot happen this weekend.
Scotland need to play with abandon. Ireland will be quite content to play structured rugby with the pack setting the platform so Scotland must change the narrative. Finn Russell and his back line have massive attacking potency. Russell and his game management needs to test out the three quarter / back three channels of Ireland early and often.
Scotland with Hogg, van der Merwe, Jones, Tuipolotu and Steyn need to be prominent in the number of possessions the unit have. They can only do this if the pack can secure quick ruck ball for White and Price to distribute. The breakdown battle becomes the focal point of this weekend’s fixture and whoever comes up trumps in this area of play will win the contest.
We do not expect Scotland’s lineup to fundamentally change from previous rounds. The Gilchrist starting berth should go to Jonny Gray who is a superb second row operator. Gilchrist though is a complete workhorse and his work rate in the set piece will be missed.
The front row of Schoeman, Turner and Fagerson coupled with Berghan, Brown and Bhatti will look to create a solid platform at scrum time. Schoeman against Furlong will be worth the ticket admission alone as Scotland to win must target the Ireland front row.
There are no weak links in this matchday squad. Scotland have evolved their depth chart in all areas. Kinghorn will deputise for Finn Russell if required. I like the balance of their back row and three quarters.
Scotland know that a victory here will secure the Triple Crown but the side need to play without fear and take the game to Ireland from minute one. It is up to Ireland to turn up and deliver a performance.
Hogg, Steyn, Jones, Tuipulotu, van der Merwe, Russell, White, Schoeman, Turner, Zander Fagerson, Richie Gray, Johnny Gray, Matt Fagerson, Ritchie, Dempsey.
Brown, Bhatti, Berghan, Cummings, Watson, Price, Kinghorn, Harris.
Performance is key for Ireland
The pregame comments from management and players has been focused on delivering a performance in Murrayfield. There will be zero talk of grand slam for this week at any rate.
Ireland’s squad depth has been tested during the tournament. The tighthead prop chart has been tested with Furlong sidelined early in this tourney. Bealham flourished in the role only to be injured against Italy last time out which now provides an opportunity for Tom O’Toole to impress.
The press briefing was that those available for selection are fit and raring to go. I hoped that Tom O’Toole would get his opportunity for this Murrayfield test match from the start but alas it is not to be. Tadhg Furlong comes back in despite zero competitive game minutes this year. Furlong is world class but this is a big ask to come into this fixture without serious minutes under his belt.
The second row depth chart has seen James Ryan impress during this tournament. Iain Henderson has come in after Tadhg Beirne’s season ending injury but Ryan Baird provides dynamism and athleticism to the unit. Iain Henderson starts and will no doubt target Scotland without Gilchrist to create a pack platform. Baird impact off the bench will be key in the third quarter.
The injuries sustained during this tournament has challenged Ireland. The ten jersey depth chart has also been tested. Ross Byrne has ably deputised in Johnny Sexton’s absence. Sexton will start on Sunday but it is reassuring that Byrne has taken his opportunity. Sexton will orchestrate provided the pack provide good quick ball to work with.
The three quarters selection dictated that Garry Ringrose come back into the thirteen jersey. There are still fundamental backup questions on that position. The twelve jersey sees Bundee Aki selected. My preference would have been Stuart McCloskey, can only assume that this is injury and not form related pick. Henshaw on the bench eager to make an impact.
How do Ireland beat Scotland?
This is a test match where Ireland must pick their moments to be expansive. This needs to be a pack orientated performance to quell the Scottish desire to get Russell and back line involved. The Gilchrist absence means that Scotland will need to renew efforts in their set piece maul defense.
The back row unit for Ireland will provide different issues for Scotland to contend with. Doris’ ball carrying prowess could create big gain line breaks for which Ireland could exploit. van der Flier’s breakdown work and general play nous as well as O’Mahony whose line out work is expose any Scottish lineout issues means that Scotland have work to do here to establish quality ball for their half-backs to work with.
The attacking play from Ireland at times during this tourney has been standout. The running lines, the change of attack has caused opposition defensive units chaos so far. Sexton and team will look to exploit the inside running line option to fully test out Scotland’s defensive setup. Any success here will mean try scoring opportunities for Lowe, Keenan and Hansen.
The performance is the mantra for Ireland. This team and management are striving to become better with each game. The Scottish and English fixtures will be excellent opportunities for Ireland to elevate their performance levels against teams who have quite different playing styles. This two game series will provide further evidence on Ireland’s aspirations for RWC 2023 which is the ultimate goal.
Hugo Keenan; Mack Hansen, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (capt), Conor Murray; Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Furlong; Iain Henderson, James Ryan, Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris.
Ronan Kelleher, Cian Healy, Tom O’Toole, Ryan Baird, Jack Conan, Jamison Gibson-Park, Ross Byrne, Robbie Henshaw.
The weather in Murrayfield could play a role in this test match. The hope is that the sleet / rain mix delays just enough for both sides to show their potential.
If Ireland can deliver a cohesive and accurate performance, then Scotland are in trouble but you cannot rule out a side which has such a stacked ten and back line unit. Ireland to edge this but it will be close until the final quarter.