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Dublin: 5 °C Tuesday 19 February, 2019
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Schmidt's Ireland bid to get Six Nations campaign up and running in Edinburgh

Rory Best and his team-mates are looking to bounce back from defeat to England.

IRELAND LOOK TO get their 2019 Six Nations campaign up and running with a win against Scotland in Murrayfield this afternoon [KO 2.15pm, Virgin Media].

Following last weekend’s defeat to England in Dublin, there are clear areas for Joe Schmidt’s men to focus on dominating.

The start

This part is simple – Ireland cannot be as slow out the blocks, with last week’s sluggishness leaving them 7-0 down before they’d even blinked.

“When you look at that first set that England had, they got ahead of us at the lineout, they then got gainline and just when we got control again, because after the first couple of phases they didn’t go too far for 10 phases, and then we made one more mistake and they scored,” says Ireland captain Rory Best.

James Ryan dejected after the game Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“We’ve got to understand at this level it’s about putting moment after moment after moment and just when you think you’re doing well, that is when you’re at your most dangerous because that is when you relax and as soon as you relax, that is when you’re in trouble.”

The opening exchanges today will be intriguing, with the Scots certainly keen to sow doubts into Irish minds with a ferocious first stanza.

The set-piece

With no Devin Toner or Iain Henderson around, Quinn Roux steps up to call the Ireland lineout today, although Schmidt says Peter O’Mahony will have key input in this area too.

Either way, the Scots are certain to see this as a potential weakness they can exploit, even if they’re not renowned for pinching lineouts.

Jonny Gray’s return to the second row is a major boost for Gregor Townsend’s side, while Josh Strauss adds a beefy presence to the starting back row. Scotland simply must match Ireland’s physicality in the set-piece, with the maul set to be a key battleground.

With WP Nel missing at tighthead, Ireland will expect to have scrum superiority and it would be a surprise if Cian Healy and co. don’t aggressively target Simon Berghan, particularly with the strong-scrummaging duo of Roux and James Ryan locking down together.

Finally, restarts will be as vital as ever and this is a challenge for Ireland without Toner, who is calm and clear-headed in this department. Stuart Hogg is excellent at kicking restarts and the Scots will attempt to pressure errors or turnovers from Ireland.

The subtleties

Schmidt’s men always excel with the subtleties – the kick escorting, the decoy running, the animation, the communication, closing doors around the ruck and opening gates for kick returners.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt is all about the subtleties. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

All of those details declined against England. Best and his team-mates have been preaching from the bible of ‘accuracy’ all week as a result.

“There’s a lot of frustration in the camp after last week and it was a bit around the way we were perceived to be bullied, but it was probably mostly around our accuracy,” says Best.

“We felt that to get into the game we need to be accurate. That sort of comes hand in hand with physicality for us because it allows us to get phases, it allows us to get carries, it allows us to get ruck cleans – it gets us out of our own half and it allows us to attack a bit more in defence.

“So the accuracy last week was the thing we felt let us down the most and that’s what made the review tough, but they’re always tough with Joe anyway.”

The midfield

Sam Johnson made a tidy debut against Italy last weekend and is a balanced midfielder but he faces an altogether more serious challenge today in the shape of Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell – a powerful combination in green.

Huw Jones and Johnson will need to be sharp and aggressive in defence alongside Finn Russell to prevent Ireland’s centres from making important inroads with ball in hand.

Injuries to Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw mean Farrell gets a deserved opportunity in Ireland’s 13 shirt, with the 25-year-old having been on a rather unique journey from Ulster to Grenoble to Munster in recent years.

Jacob Stockdale, Chris Farrell and Peter O'Mahony Farrell gets a shot at 13. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Chris was a cracking player whenever he played for us [Ulster],” says Best. “I just think he thought he was behind a bit of a backlog. He got a couple of nasty enough injuries and probably felt he needed to go somewhere to kickstart his career again.

“He has done unbelievably well. It’s hugely frustrating to watch him play, and play so well, for Munster. He was always a big man but probably not the size he is now. He has shown for Ireland that he can step up and be very good.” 

The brutality

We rarely get a genuine glimpse behind the curtain of how physically-charged professional rugby environments are, but we can rest assured that Schmidt and his coaches will have questioned their players in this area this week.

There are certainly the important accuracy elements around why Ireland dipped in their usual physical dominance against England last weekend but Best and his team-mates will be more fired-up than ever to lay down markers in contact against the Scots.

Think back to Ireland’s performance at home to Wales last year, when they bullied Warren Gatland’s side in the collisions, and we may have a template for this Ireland performance.

Simon Easterby’s pack will look at someone like the inexperienced and highly-promising 22-year-old flanker Jamie Ritchie as a target to pick on. If the Edinburgh man can come through this kind of Test with credit, he will be wearing a badge of honour.

The backfield

England had by far the better of this particular battle against Ireland last time out, while Scotland also delivered some clever decision-making in finding space in Italy’s backfield in round one.

Sarah Solheim and Joanne Mullarkey with Rob Kearney Rob Kearney is back. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

With Rob Kearney back in the 15 shirt, Ireland will expect to cover the space more competently, while wings Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale have to make better decisions.

“Rob brings a lot of solidity back there,” says Best of Kearney’s return. “For me, he’s one of the best fullbacks I’ve ever played with. If you want someone who makes everyone else look good, and makes their jobs a little bit easier, then Rob Kearney is brilliant.

“From a hooker’s point of view, the way he covers the backfield and some of the little things that not everyone sees. When Keith went off last week we lost a lot of experience in the back three.

“With Robbie playing at fullback for the first time in a while and obviously Jacob – even though he was fantastic last year, he is still a young man.

“And then Jordan [Larmour] coming in who is a young man. So to be able to switch that round now and have Keith and Rob back there, it gives us that nice spine where we have a good bit of experience in most quarters.”

Scotland’s back three, meanwhile, is boosted defensively and positionally by the return of Sean Maitland. Blair Kinghorn is an exciting talent who his a big future with Scotland, but selecting the more experienced Maitland made sense for Townsend.

Maitland, Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour are more than capable finishers too and their brilliance in the 15-metre channels, along with outside centre Jones, is a big danger to Ireland.

The halfbacks

Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton know better than anyone that there is more to come from them in this championship, starting today in Edinburgh.

Ireland’s Conor Murray Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

“I think they are class players and class is permanent,” says Joe Schmidt of his halfbacks.

“Form can be temporary and coming back after not having played in a month, a player [Sexton] might be a bit rusty. A player who has had a longer lay-off [Murray] and is getting back to their rhythm, he might be a bit rusty.”

Murray will be keen to bring greater accuracy to his passing, kicking and defensive activity, while Sexton will be eager to get a firmer grip on the tactical flow of this game than was the case last weekend.

On the opposite side, Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw will attempt to provide composure and his contagiously combative approach alongside the thrilling Finn Russell.

The Racing 92 playmaker is a throwback of a player, a joy to watch at times and a frustrating figure at others. His skillset is often beautiful – the ball constantly bobbing here and there as he makes a decision on the move, defenders on tenterhooks – but he must play with maturity against a force as disciplined as Ireland. 

The mindset

For Scotland, the reward is clear. Beat Ireland at home and they underline the progress they believe they’ve made under Townsend, as well as declaring themselves as Six Nations contenders.

For Ireland, the mindset is also clear. Last weekend’s relative lethargy in thinking was unacceptable. Having suffered the chastening experience of giving up a bonus point in defeat to England on home soil, it’s now time to deliver a true statement of their quality.

Scotland:

15. Stuart Hogg
14. Tommy Seymour
13. Huw Jones
12. Sam Johnson
11. Sean Maitland
10. Finn Russell 
9. Greig Laidlaw (captain)

1. Allan Dell
2. Stuart McInally 
3. Simon Berghan
4. Grant Gilchrist 
5. Jonny Gray 
6. Ryan Wilson
7. Jamie Ritchie 
8. Josh Strauss

Replacements:

16. Fraser Brown
17. Jamie Bhatti 
18. D’arcy Rae
19. Ben Toolis
20. Rob Harley
21. Ali Price
22. Pete Horne
23. Blair Kinghorn

Ireland:

15. Rob Kearney
14. Keith Earls
13. Chris Farrell
12. Bundee Aki
11. Jacob Stockdale
10. Johnny Sexton
9. Conor Murray

1. Cian Healy
2. Rory Best (captain)
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Quinn Roux
5. James Ryan
6. Peter O’Mahony
7. Seán O’Brien
8. Jack Conan.

Replacements:

16. Sean Cronin
17. Dave Kilcoyne
18. Andrew Porter
19. Ultan Dillane
20. Josh van der Flier
21. John Cooney
22. Joey Carbery
23. Jordan Larmour

Referee: Romain Poite [FFR].

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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