Ireland v Scotland
Saturday 21st March
Kick off: 3pm Murrayfield, Edinburgh
So the Grand slam dream has been crushed after a frustrating display in Cardiff. Ireland’s loss to Wales last weekend could be down to a number of debatable reasons, including Wayne Barnes’ refereeing. However a large part of the loss was down to Wales’ incredibly strong defence. Scotland’s defence will not be as tight going by last week’s performance. While they may not suffice in defence they have not struggled as much in converting try scoring chances playing some exciting rugby in tight games that have been intriguing to watch.
Scotland’s current standing in the table is an unfair reflection on the quality of rugby they have played. This year has seen a great improvement, and bar last weekend’s loss to England, they have played exciting rugby and could have easily won against France, Wales and Italy, being within a score each time. Scotland have scored one more try than Ireland, with at least one in each game. Ireland have scored 4 tries, and failed to cross the whitewash against France, and scoring only a penalty try in last weekends defeat to Wales. While tries have been a struggle for Ireland this year, Scotland have been open and attacking. They have built on the recent rise of the Glasgow Warriors who have played a similar style of intense try scoring rugby, with Glasgow players such as Stuart Hogg, Mark Bennett and Finn Russell dominating the back line and hugely influencing Scotland’s fluidity in attack.
Last year Ireland won 28-6 in the Aviva, yet in the previous meeting in Murrayfield, Scotland shocked Ireland with a disappointing 12-8 victory. Ireland will not want a repeat of this and if you look at Scotland’s standing in the table you might assume that is easily avoidable. However Scotland rarely end a championship on zero points. Irish fans would have hoped for a Scottish victory last weekend, not only because it would have put England out of the running, but also as Scotland would have achieved a win in the championship. It motivates the team and the country knowing that this is their last chance for a much-needed win, but also that they could end Irish dreams of championship glory.
This year has been tough for Scotland to take, with their new coach Vern Cotter, who took charge after last year’s Six Nations. The Scots impressed during the November series against Argentina, New Zealand and Tonga and there were huge positives going into the Six Nations. However Scotland are technically the worst team in this Six Nations sitting on zero points, and they are coming into this match off of a poor loss to England which could have been much heavier if it was not for the incredible defence by Stuart Hogg who saved at least two certain English tries. They have often been the creators in their own downfall but are desperate not to finish bottom and get themselves on the right track leading up to the World Cup.
For Ireland there have been calls for Schmidt to change things up for this game. Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls have been suggested as worthy replacements in the back line while Tommy O’Donnell, who has performed superbly throughout the Six Nations, will feel hard done by not to start against Scotland. Cian Healy looks also looks set to start in place of Jack McGrath who was penalised heavily by Wayne Barnes. Tony Ward even called for Johnny Sexton to be sidelined to prevent any possible injury leading up to the World Cup, yet it is doubtful that this will happen. In terms of a game plan it’s unlikely to differ from earlier displays under Joe Schmidt with perhaps are more kick based game than the match in Wales. Yet the outcome of this game is so hard to call. Scotland can surprise more than most teams, often turning up when it is least expected and playing out of their skin, yet on the other hand it could easily be a great winning margin for Ireland if they take the number of chances that they will inevitably get. Once any kind of a lead is built against this Scottish side they tend to collapse, but not to the point of a walkover. Scotland are not without injuries with players such as the towering Richie Gray, Moray Low out injured. But Scottish supporters will be hoping that players who have shone throughout this Six Nations such as Rob Harley, Blair Cowan and Mark Bennett play to their potential.
The final day promises to be hugely exciting as England, Wales and France can also still win the trophy. In terms of points difference, Ireland currently sit four points behind England, and twenty-one ahead of Wales. France are eleven points behind yet must win against England to have any effect. For Ireland to win the trophy, they must beat Scotland by five points more than England beat France, and hope that Wales do not score more than twenty-one points against Italy. If two or three teams end with the same points difference and number of wins then the championship will be decide by the number of tries scored. The Irish players in the mixed zone this week have indicated that the points difference is not the priority and will be aiming to secure a tough win beforehand. While the technicalities for glory are confusing, it puts the championship on a knife edge and has the potential to be one of the most exciting or devastating concluding days since that fateful day in 2007 when Ireland lost out to France.
In terms of predictions for the match in Edinburgh it is also hanging in the balance but it would be massively disappointing and shocking if Ireland were to leave the pitch with anything less than a victory as Ireland are favourites for this game, but not for the championship overall. England perhaps face a tougher challenge playing France, so if Ireland can hold off the fast Scottish attack and capitalise on their own chances it could be a day to remember.