Friday, March 20, 2015

Preview : Scotland v Ireland

 

Trust. Joe.

Those are the words by which we must live through to the World Cup.  Sure, Jim Telfer referred to him as the Messiah, and yes, maybe we have been getting a bit carried away.  Still, I dare say he'd be getting a wee bit cocky if Vern Cotter took Scotland on a 10-game winning streak including conquests like SA, AUS, ENG & FRA (twice).

But last weekend, we had a wake up call.  Not for the first time, Warren Gatland turned our upward curve into a learning one.  

Now, we need to go to Murrayfield and score loads of points.  Er, wait...not only score loads of tries, but also make sure Scotland don't score many themselves, given it's all about the points difference.  Er, wait...not only all of that, but we have to WIN!!!  Yeah, that would help for starters.

And to this end Joe has brought some changes, and they are indeed interesting ones.  Luke Fitzgerald has parachuted into a starting wing position with Simon Zebo very unlucky to miss out.  It certainly is a brave call as it could be taken to imply that last week's result was the Munster man's fault.  But I'm wondering if that is necessarily the case.

What if Joe meant to start Luke all along?  I mean...he was selected in the Wolfhounds lineup to face the Saxons at the end of January only to be ruled unfit to play at the 11th hour.   And even when it's due to injury, when you miss your window to train in a Joe Schmidt camp, it's going to cost you...ask Fergus McFadden, Dave Kearney, Keith Earls, the list goes on.

There's no doubt that Zebo has adapted his game well to suit the Schmidt style.  But it's still not HIS style.  He definitely has the x-factor required to exploit space but to get the most out of his abilities you kind of have to tailor your game around him, a bit like the way Wasps would do for Wade & Varndell.

Luke is a different kind of player and has an explosive step which can make space out of nothing.  OK, maybe I'm only saying it because I'm a Leinster fan but it's honestly how I feel.  I also think Sexton would have a better connection with his soon-to-be-provincial-teammate-again in areas key to Schmidt like restarts and crossfield kicks.  So before I'm lynched...Zebo not a bad player, just Luke might be better suited to the way we are set up to play the game.

One area where I'm not surprised we didn't change is centre.  I saw a lot of online opinion over the last week suggesting different 12/13 combos and pretty much all of them made sense on paper, but I see no earthly reason why Henshaw/Payne needs to be changed.  They're on a roll together, bar one slip up in Cardiff (which didn't even involve them) our defence has been solid, and to all intents and purposes, THAT is their remit.

All this doesn't mean I'm 100% happy with the lineup...as much as I reckon Felix Jones has a role to play in this squad, I can't see the need for him in the 23 jumper this time around.  That's a position where we'll need someone who can make the most of a weary home defence, and if Luke has to start then maybe Zebo or Keith Earls would have been better suited to bring on.  But going back to the prevailing theme, we need to trust Joe.  If Jones comes on and bags a try or two in the late stages I will happy to eat my words.

Now, for the forwards...Church swaps with McGrath but what concerns me most is that our results in this year's Six Nations seem to be working in tandem with our pack's performance at set-pieces.  Maybe we can raise question marks over the scrum calls that went against us last Saturday, but we certainly can't over all the lost lineouts in key attacking situations.  The most important coaching job during the week as far as I concerned was for both Simon Easterby and Greg Feek, sorting out what went wrong.  Assuming that happened, we should have a decent platform for ourselves, though Jim Hamilton has been known to be a fly in our dart-throwing ointment....

Speaking of the Scots...what of their chances?  Well they have certainly been playing an attractive form of rugby this year and long may that continue.  It's just not one that is likely to get results right now.  Still...this will be a form of attack that we won't have been that used to in recent weeks so we'll see how we respond defensively to the ball being given a little more air.

Before I give my prediction, my thoughts on the other matches this weekend.  Wales are firm favourites to run up a big score in Rome, but as we learned ourselves back in the noughties, the Italians can sneak a few scores down the other end themselves and I'm not sure Gatland's men will be able to get a difference they require to challenge for the title.

As for England, although the bookies have them as favourites to finish on top at the weekend, I have been disappointed overall by them in this Championship.  I thought the Welsh lost the opening match more than Lancaster's men won it, and after letting us dominate them early in Dublin they left a rake of points out on the pitch against the Scots.  I think they'll beat France, but something tells me Messrs Kockott, Tales & Bastareaud might come off the bench and make things interesting in the final quarter.

So I guess what I'm saying is yes, I think we can win the championship this Saturday.  We'll need a bit of luck to come our way, but even though our offensive options have been limited to say the least in recent weeks, we should have enough to stay ahead of the Scots by about 15-20pts.  I have the Welsh to win by about 30 while the English will fall just short with around a 6-8 pt margin.

But when it comes to trusting Joe, I don't mean with a view to lifting a trophy this weekend, which of course would be nice, especially on my birthday.  No...the trust must come for our assault on the big prize in the autumn.  Everything leads to that and final judgement cannot be made until we see how we get on.

Also this weekend we have the U20s wrapping up their campaign tonight while the Women have the best shot at an Irish title against the Scots in Broadwood (note I'm artfully dodging the multitude of puns in THAT name), and kudos to RTE for picking up live coverage.  Smart money there is that even if we do need to win by a certain amount of point to lift the trophy we should be able to do it.

So best wishes to all the Irish squads over in bonny Scotland this weekend.  Whatever happens, there have been plenty of positives at all three levels during this Six Nations.

#TrustJoe #ShoulderToShoulder #COYBIG JLP

SCOTLAND : 15 Stuart Hogg 14 Dougie Fife 13 Mark Bennett 12 Matt Scott 11 Tommy Seymour 10 Finn Russell 9 Greig Laidlaw - capt
1 Ryan Grant 2 Ross Ford 3 Euan Murray 4 Jim Hamilton 5 Jonny Gray 6 Adam Ashe 7 Blair Cowan 8 David Denton 
Substitutes 16 Fraser Brown 17 Alasdair Dickinson 18 Geoff Cross 19 Tim Swinson 20 Rob Harley 21 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne 22 Greig Tonks 23 Tim Visser

RBS Six Nations - Round 5
Saturday, March 21, 2015, KO 2:30pm
Murrayfield, Edinburgh
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (FFR)
Assistant Referees: Pascal Gauzere (FFR), Federico Anselmi (Argentina)
Television Match Official: Graham Hughes (RFU)
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