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Dublin: 12 °C Saturday 25 May, 2019
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Ireland's standards back on track as improving Scotland come to Dublin

Joe Schmidt’s side are looking for a second win in the 2016 Six Nations.

Ireland v Scotland, 5pm, Aviva Stadium

THIS FIXTURE, AT home to Scotland, has been perceived as rather straightforward in recent years.

The Scots have won just once in their last nine visits to Dublin, a 23-20 victory in 2010, but there is genuine belief in Vern Cotter’s squad this time around.

Jamie Heaslip Johnny Sexton will be key for Ireland again.

Coming in off the back of a convincing win against France last weekend and a facile success over Italy in the third round, Scotland have the opportunity to win three consecutive championship games for the first time in 20 years.

With Stuart Hogg shimmering with class at fullback, Greig Laidlaw providing tactical acuity at scrum-half and the Johns – Barclay and Hardie – marrying the traditional abrasive edge to intelligence and skill in the back row, this is a threatening Scotland unit.

Combined with their growth under Vern Cotter is the fact that Ireland have had a dip in this championship, a somewhat understandable one after the loss of Paul O’Connell and their various injury problems.

On top of those blows, captain Rory Best admits Joe Schmidt’s squad may have taken their eye off the ball in terms of the standards that led them to two Six Nations titles in 2014 and 2015.

I think there’s a massive pressure [in this squad] and probably a pressure that we maybe as a player group let off the hook for the first couple of weeks, in that it’s not a case of we bring the standards down to accommodate the new people coming in,” says Best.

“The standards are the standards and everyone catches up and they catch up quickly or they get left behind and then they don’t make the next squad.

“I would say, looking back now, we probably let some of our standards in training… we let ourselves away because we wanted to build everyone’s confidence up because everyone was sort of talking us down. We probably went that way a wee bit much, instead of going, ‘Look, if you don’t catch up you’re behind’.”

Best feels Ireland have recovered their training ground standards in recent weeks, helping them to last weekend’s nine-try win over Italy, but today’s meeting with the Scots certainly presents a far greater test of where Schmidt’s men are.

Keith Earls and Simon Zebo Ireland playing walking tip in the Aviva Stadium yesterday. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Cotter has deservedly received his fair share of credit for the Scots’ growth, but he has been clever in putting good coaches around himself too.

The inclusion of breakdown specialist Richie Gray ahead of this championship was smart, with the Scotland native having built a world-class reputation in his role as breakdown coach for South Africa in recent years.

Scotland’s improvements when competing for opposition ball have partly been inspired by Gray’s influence, while former Leinster lock Nathan Hines has added a savvy edge to the forwards’ efforts.

Hines came on board last year under the job title of ‘resource coach,’ and pushes much of Scotland’s lineout work.

He had a few little tricks here and there that sometimes worked for us that he learned through experience,” says Ireland scrum coach Greg Feek when reflecting on Hines’ time with Leinster, “maybe holding someone into the ruck a little longer or blocking someone out of the way without being too obvious and just being cute at the lineout.

“The biggest thing Hinesy brought was he walked the talk. He wasn’t a big ranter and raver, but when he did say something the boys listened. He did the job on the paddock, he was physical.”

Last year saw once-capped All Black Jason O’Halloran join Cotter’s backroom staff too, with Feek highlighting that the Scotland backs coach “has a very astute rugby brain on him.”

The evidence of these improvements to the Scotland coaching set-up is clear to see, with Cotter’s side playing organised, intelligent rugby that allows the players’ individual flair and creativity to flourish.

Tommy O'Donnell Tommy O'Donnell will be busy against the Scotland back row. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Up front, the inclusion of South African native Willem Nel has made a big difference since he became qualified under the residency rules. With Alasdair Dickinson aggressive at loosehead, Nel has been a real anchor on the other side of hooker Ross Ford.

“They’re pretty strong and pretty dynamic, they’re a good unit and they’ve been putting a lot of scrums under pressure,” says Ireland loosehead Jack McGrath of the Scottish front row, all of whom play club rugby with Edinburgh.

“Obviously it helps when all three of them are playing together week in, week out. Dickinson and Nel, they pose their own threats and they’re explosive, strong, short guys, so it’s something we’ve really focused on this week and I think we’ve tweaked a few things in our own set-up.”

With O’Halloran sparking improvement from the backline – who are shorn of first-choice out-half Finn Russell today – this Scotland team brings a rounded danger to Ireland, who seek to end the Six Nations by building more momentum.

A tour to South Africa in June looms already, and Best feels there will be no shortage of motivation for his team, particularly on home soil.

“I think just for us there is a real hunger,” says the Ulsterman, who remarkably plays in his 50th successive Six Nations match today. Only John Hayes bettered that for Ireland with 54.

“That’s what you get with a slightly less experienced group – a real hunger to keep getting better and better, because they don’t see not playing for a championship as any less of a game than maybe this time last year.

“That’s the good thing about these guys. You bring in Tommy O’Donnell to start and he’s going to be more hungry than ever. The likes of CJ [Stander], guys like this, who want to finish their campaign on a high.

The Ireland squad to face Scotland Jamie Heaslip engages with Johnny Sexton. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“I think for me anyway, playing for Ireland motivationally shouldn’t be an issue but there are so many things for us… the likes of Earlsy, making his 50th appearance.

“He’s a guy who has come through a lot of injuries and a lot of adversity, he’s a fantastic player who has played at the highest level. I think he’s one of those guys that everyone likes so much, it’s another one for Earlsy as well, it’s another motivating factor.”

Ireland:

15. Simon Zebo
14. Andrew Trimble
13. Jared Payne
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. Keith Earls
10. Johnny Sexton
9. Conor Murray

1. Jack McGrath
2. Rory Best (captain)
3. Mike Ross
4. Donnacha Ryan
5. Devin Toner
6. CJ Stander
7. Tommy O’Donnell
8. Jamie Heaslip

Replacements:

16. Richardt Strauss
17. Cian Healy
18. Nathan White
19. Ultan Dillane
20. Rhys Ruddock
21. Eoin Reddan
22. Ian Madigan
23. Fergus McFadden

Scotland:

15. Stuart Hogg
14. Tommy Seymour
13. Duncan Taylor
12. Alex Dunbar
11. Tim Visser
10. Duncan Weir
9. Greig Laidlaw (captain)

1. Alasdair Dickinson
2. Ross Ford
3. WP Nel
4. Richie Gray
5. Tim Swinson
6. John Barclay
7. John Hardie
8. Ryan Wilson

Replacements:

16. Stuart McInally
17. Rory Sutherland
18. Moray Low
19. Rob Harley
20. Josh Strauss
21. Henry Pyrgos
22. Peter Horne
23. Sean Lamont

Referee: Pascal Gaüzère [FFR].

- This article was updated at 3.25pm.

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Murray Kinsella

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