A week is a long time in rugby. At the beginning of the Championship, merely a week ago, Ireland were the 5/6 favourites to retain their title. Indeed, they might still do so. But over the course of 80 incredible minutes, England seized the initiative, the mantle of favouritism, and left a few marks that now make this game against Scotland one of the most important games of the Championship.
Victory here will keep Ireland in the hunt for a title down the road (many teams have won titles without Grand Slams), whilst another defeat would put Scotland right into the title conversation – winner takes all rugby indeed.
It’s important to remember that Ireland have not become a bad team overnight. England – as predicted on these pages last week – were underrated going into their opener and had recovered some sort of form during the Autumn in terms of their performances. Also, with the recovery of the Vunipolas, they were able to put out something very close to a first string side (at least on form) and many of the players had won 18 straight games before their defeat against Scotland last year.
They managed to outmatch and outthink Ireland, with brilliant physical performances from a heavy duty pack, especially Mark Wilson, Mako Vunipola and Maro Itoje, whilst John Mitchell implemented a brilliant defensive plan which saw Sexton and Murray targeted like they hadn’t been for a long time. The speed of England’s defensive blitz meant that Ireland’s halfback pairing could never get traction for their strategic attacking, and their box kicking strategy was especially exposed as well.
Joe Schmidt will have made sure that no stone will have been unturned – or no tackle missed – in training this week, but England did leave a physical toll. The loss of CJ Stander, Devin Toner, Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw is a big blow both in their pack and backline and with precious little time until the World Cup, we shall now see the full depth of their squad.
Chris Farrell and Bundee Aki make for a very powerful centre pairing whilst Jack Conan and Quinn Roux have had international experience before, so the new men are not to be underestimated even if there might be a chance in continuity.
And let us not forget that Scotland present a mighty challenge, either. Vern Cotter’s men beat Italy 33-20 in their opener, a victory that was expected even if the markets had predicted a wider margin.
The end score-line flattered the visitors, who managed to grab three tries after a late yellow card for Simon Berghan, but before that they’d dominated the game comprehensively and they had a good runout with Finn Russell directly setting up two of Scotland’s five tries and playing well alongside Greig Laidlaw.
Blair Kinghorn has been hard done by not to get a start after a hat-trick against Italy last week but no matter how one looks at it, Scotland have the pace to get in behind the Irish defence. Stuart Hogg was brilliant last week and when the two last met at Murrayfield, whilst Tommy Seymour and Stuart Maitland will be eagerly awaiting the chance to run back errant kicks.
Italy offered little when the two sides were matched 15-15 but Scotland have no issue in raising their game for the bigger occasion, and especially so at Murrayfield. In the last two years only New Zealand and South Africa have come to Scotland and won with each of the other 6 Nations sides beaten there, including Ireland themselves at the beginning of the 2017 Championships.
This Irish side is much better than the 2017 outfit, but Scotland may well have improved too and the 7.5-point handicap looks a big start. Back it, and we will win unless Ireland deny Scotland a losing bonus point, something that hasn’t happened since March 2015. Whilst we’re at it, let’s have a tiny bet on them to land the spoils as well.
Guinness 6 Nations
Scotland v Ireland
2.15pm BBC 1
HEAD TO HEAD RECORD
(Maximum 10 matches)
2018: Ireland won 28-8 in Dublin
2017: Scotland won 27-22 at Murrayfield
2016: Ireland won 35-25 in Dublin
2015: Ireland won 28-22 in Dublin
2015: Ireland won 40-10 at Murrayfield
2014: Ireland won 28-6 in Dublin
2013: Scotland won 12-8 at Murrayfield
2012: Ireland won 32-14 in Dublin
Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Huw Jones, 12 Sam Johnson, 11 Sean Maitland, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Greig Laidlaw (c), 8 Josh Strauss, 7 Jamie Ritchie, 6 Ryan Wilson, 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Grant Gilchrist, 3 Simon Berghan, 2 Stuart McInally, 1 Allan Dell
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, 8 Jack Conan, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 Quinn Roux, 4 James Ryan, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Cian Healy
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
PROFIT/LOSS SINCE JAN 1 2017: PROFIT 239.64 points
(excluding Premier League ante-post and Six Nations ante-post)