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Pressure is on but Ireland have enough about them to beat Scotland

Having experimented throughout the autumn, Andy Farrell has named an experienced team for today’s encounter with Scotland. They need to deliver a performance as well as a result.

Eyes on the ball: Sexton and Ireland face Scotland today.
Eyes on the ball: Sexton and Ireland face Scotland today.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

IT SEEMS THE perfect irony, that a tournament that has no history and may very well not even have a future, should throw up a third place play-off that has already been described as a must-win game (v Scotland, 2.15pm, RTE).

Andy Farrell must be wondering what’s going on. A year into the job, he has won five of his eight matches – and those of us with long memories can recall when that kind of year wasn’t just considered a success in Irish rugby but a miracle.

But time changes and so do expectation levels. “In the 1990s, two wins in the Five Nations was considered a fine season; by 2008 it got you the sack,” remembers Eddie O’Sullivan.

The upshot is we’ve all become a little spoiled, first by the Triple Crowns; then the Grand Slams and Championships, while under Joe Schmidt, each year seemed to signal a new breakthrough: first win over the All Blacks, first time beating the Springboks in South Africa, first winning tour in Australia since ‘79.

There’s only one problem with raising standards. You better keep meeting them otherwise you’ll hear all about it – and this past week, Farrell’s ears have been burning.

Here’s former Ireland lock, Neil Francis, in his Sunday Independent column: “Two things register with you straight away with Andy Farrell. His knowledge of the basics and nuances of the game of union are not good. The second and more obvious thing is that he is not a head coach. Yet.”

This is the former Lion and Ireland international, Gordan D’Arcy, in the Irish Times: “This new(ish) coaching team have designed the wrong tactical approach for the players at their disposal.”

From Stuart Barnes came the assessment that Ireland have turned into a ‘bad team’ while Shane Horgan, on the Second Captain’s podcast, openly wondered if Farrell had the skills to turn things around.

Then last Sunday came the most damning words of all – these ones delivered by ….. Andy Farrell. “Not good enough, not good enough,” Farrell said of Ireland’s second half no-show against Georgia.

It certainly wasn’t.

giorgi-kveseladze-on-his-way-to-scoring-his-sides-first-try Farrell said Ireland's second half display last week was 'not good enough'. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The upshot is that we’re here, in an empty stadium, staring at Scotland, who haven’t beaten Ireland anywhere since 2017 and whose last win in this stadium came in a thing called the 20th century when the Aviva was known as Lansdowne Road, when there were Five rather than Six Nations in the annual winter fest, and when the odd doddery eejit wondered if it was still four points for a try.

The Scots had a reasonable team then and they’ve a decent one now, one that has rattled up five wins and three defeats in 2020. Sound familiar? The difference is in perception. Five wins for Scotland is considered progress, three defeats for Ireland regarded as stagnation.

They got their crisis out of the way early in 2020, when Finn Russell was sent back to Paris and when the side lost their opening two matches in his absence. By that stage, though, the three assistant coaches – Steve Tandy (defence), Pieter de Villiers (set piece) and John Dalziel (forwards) – who Gregor Townsend had introduced since the last World Cup, were beginning to make an impact. “They have brought different structures, but the guys have bought into what they are wanting to do and they make it simple for us,” said Zander Fagerson, their prop. “They are three great assets for Scottish rugby.”

Tandy may well be the greatest of them all, with the team coughing up an average of one try-per-game. At the other end, 19 tries in their last 10 games looks respectable until you delve into the detail, 15 of those have come against Georgia and Italy.

The greatest difference is in their line-up, just eight of the Scotland team who began the year in that 19-12 defeat to Ireland are back in the Scotland XV today. They have become a team of Boks and Borderers – South African converts Oli Kebble, winger Duhan van der Merwe and out half, Jaco van der Walt, joining the trio of Hawick born players, Stuart Hogg, Rory Sutherland and Darcy Graham, in the side.

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paolo-garbisi-and-duhan-van-der-merwe Duhan van der Merwe has added depth to Scotland's squad. Source: Matteo Ciambelli/INPHO

They’re not the team going through an identity crisis, though. To all intents and purposes, that is Ireland, who throughout this series of autumn internationals have struggled with different parts of their game. It was their scrum last week, the line-out the week before. They looked shoddy in attack against Georgia and England, loose in defence against France. Throw in the periodic problems at the breakdown and you are kind of wondering if there is anything else that needs fixing.

Again, when speaking to the media on Thursday, Farrell pointed out how well things were going in training. That is all well and good but it’s match day that matters, though. When the cameras are rolling and an audience of over half a million people are tuning in, things have to click.

Now and again, they have. There was much about their first half display in Paris that was good; aspects of their trip to Twickenham that deserved a little more credit than they received, while their wins over Italy and Wales were backed up by good performances.

Otherwise, there has been far too much inconsistency, a little too much chat about a long-term plan when really we just want to see an 80-minute one.

That’s why today’s game counts way more than it should. It isn’t that Ireland’s players need a bronze medal from a competition that simply hasn’t caught the imagination. What they really need is to show they are moving forward under this coach.

This game doesn’t double up as a referendum on Farrell’s future; but the reaction to the result and performance will provide an interesting opinion poll. Lose and the flak will increase but a win, backed up with a coherent display, will silence a few voices. Given the team he has selected, he should get what he is looking for.

Ireland: J Stockdale; H Keenan, B Aki, R Henshaw, K Earls; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Herring, A Porter, I Henderson, J Ryan, CJ Stander, P O’Mahony, C Doris. Replacements: R Kelleher, E O’Sullivan, J Ryan, Q Roux, J Van der Flier, J Gibson-Park, R Byrne, C Farrell.

Scotland: S Hogg; D Graham, C Harris, D Taylor, D Van der Merwe; J Van der Walt, A Price; R Sutherland, F Brown, Z Fagerson, S Cummings, J Gray, B Thomson, J Ritchie, M Fagerson.

Replacements: S McInally, O Kebble, W Nel, S Skinner, B Cowan, S Hidalgo-Clyne, H Jones, S Maitland.

Ireland v Scotland Autumn Nations Cup, 3rd/4th place play-off, Today, 2.15pm TV: RTE


Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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