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Scotland sense Six Nations opportunity with Sexton ruled out for Ireland

Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw felt Ireland’s win over New Zealand in November was down to Kiwi errors.

WHILE IRELAND AND their supporters will be confident that Paddy Jackson is more than capable of doing a fine job at Murrayfield on Saturday, Scotland will have been encouraged by news that Johnny Sexton has been ruled out of the Six Nations clash.

The Leinster out-half’s calf issue continues to bother him and Ireland say they’re unwilling to take risks with the 31-year-old, who has endured a miserable time with injuries in recent seasons.

Joe Schmidt and Paddy Jackson Paddy Jackson talks tactics with Joe Schmidt. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Sexton at his fittest is clearly one of the best out-halves in the game, so his absence is naturally a boost for Scotland.

Certainly, their captain Greig Laidlaw was unwilling to trod out the usual line about his replacement being just as good when asked about Sexton being ruled out.

“It makes a little bit of difference if I’m being honest. Sexton’s a key driver in that team alongside [Conor] Murray, albeit they don’t play provincially together,” said Laidlaw yesterday.

“They do have a strong combination when they link up with Ireland. Obviously, they have a good understanding and you can see Johnny is really a lynchpin in that team, he drives their attack, so whoever comes in has got a big job to do.”

When asked about Finn Russell a little later, Laidlaw returned to the point that Ireland’s best out-half will not be on the pitch in Murrayfield.

“I think Ireland will miss Sexton a little bit, if I’m being honest,” said Laidlaw. “He’s a quality player, a great goalkicker and he drives their attack.”

Scotland sense an opening, an increased opportunity for them to start the Six Nations with a crucial win against Joe Schmidt’s side, who many have been keen to push forward as favourites in this competition.

Scotland coach Vern Cotter was among them, while Eddie Jones stated that Ireland have turned the rugby world upside down with their win over the All Blacks in November.

Knocking off the best team in the world definitely marks out Ireland’s quality, but Laidlaw was intrigued to note that Schmidt’s men did not back the historic success up in their second clash with the Kiwis last November.

Conor Murray and CJ Stander Keith Earls, Conor Murray and CJ Stander at Ireland training yesterday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“We watched them both, they were interesting and there was a clear difference why Ireland won the first game – because New Zealand’s error count was so high,” said Laidlaw.

“[New Zealand] made a lot of mistakes in the game, missed a lot of lineouts and didn’t give themselves a platform to launch attacks into the game.

“The key difference in the second match was they reduced their error count and were more aggressive in defence. Those were what we feel were the two main differences. We can take some stuff, some learnings out of that.”

While Scotland will feel they have a greater chance of victory with Sexton missing, Ireland have been understandably insistent that Ulsterman Jackson is a perfect replacement.

Jackson did show his quality again in the November Tests, particularly with some excellent form off the tee, but then one must wonder if Ireland would have won the Test series in South Africa last June had Sexton been fit.

“He’s built a leadership to his game that maybe a year or two ago he wouldn’t have had,” said Ireland assistant coach Simon Easterby of Jackson yesterday.

“But having had exposure and having had game time, in particular in South Africa, but leading Ulster as well – it’s a massive learning curve, but one we feel he’s able for.

“When he’s on his game, he’s really difficult to manage and he’s a threat to the opposition both in the backfield and the front line. He has great passing skills.

Paddy Jackson Jackson started Ireland's most recent Test against Australia. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“The lads around him now look to him when he is speaking and that is the mark of someone who has everyone’s ear and the mark of someone who can take the team forward and be that go-to which most teams want their 10 to be.

“Scotland will be no different with Finn Russell; he makes them tick. Laidlaw is the same. If we allow them to get on the front foot, allow Russell and Laidlaw to dictate things, then it becomes very difficult for our defence, as it will be for them if they allow Conor and Jacko to run things.”

The hamstring injury to Peter O’Mahony would appear to simplify what had been a back row selection headache for Ireland this weekend, with CJ Stander, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip looking like the probable starters, and Josh van der Flier potentially in reserve.

Nonetheless, O’Mahony would have been particularly useful against Scotland’s lineout.

“I think there’s a threat from Scotland, the Gray brothers, [Tim] Swinson is playing really well, John Barclay is winning a lot of ball depending on who they select in the back-row,” said Easterby.

“We are building depth in the back row. Even without the excellence of Pete in there – because he is a brilliant lineout forward, he’s proved that over a number of years – when you lose one thing, you gain in another area.

“We have to manage those situations and have to make sure it doesn’t cost us in terms of ball-winning and on the other side with defence against Scotland’s ball.”

Warren Gartland and Peter O'Mahony Warren Gatland with Peter O'Mahony at Carton House. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The doubts surrounding Andrew Trimble and his groin issue may also mean Ireland field a back three of Keith Earls, Simon Zebo and Rob Kearney, although the Ulsterman has not been ruled out at this stage.

Even with the injuries, Ireland have options and that’s always a welcome case.

“The conundrum is great to have because you’ve got guys who are desperate to get selected,” said Easterby. “There’s guys who will feel like they’ve earned their place and don’t get selected, and that’s great to have.”


Source: The42 Rugby Show/SoundCloud

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Murray Kinsella

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