Dan Sheehan, Jimmy O’Brien, Mack Hansen and James Lowe take a moment for a photo during Irish Rugby Squad training in Tours on Tuesday. [Inpho/Dan Sheridan]

Ireland must be wary of Scots

Amid all the hubris of a historic winning streak now totalling 16 matches, including three current World Cup victories, there is still the chance that all our great work can be undone with an off-day against Scotland next Saturday evening (3 p.m. KO Eastern Time).

Scotland Head Coach Gregor Townsend believes that if Scotland play the game of their lives, they could catch us on the hop, with the subsequent possibility, if denied a losing bonus point, that we will be heading home on the plane out of Paris by Sunday afternoon.

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However Andy Farrell, the Ireland Head Coach, while conscious of the real threat this particular opponent posed during the first half of our win in Murrayfield on the way to last Spring’s Grand Slam in the Six Nations, is confident that his squad will again deal with the best Scotland has to offer before kicking on to victory and No 1 position in Pool B. Should that be the case, we will face the All Blacks in the quarter-finals – a game that will bring an entirely different challenge.

So for everyone the maths are now there to see. With South Africa beating Tonga and gaining a bonus point, Scotland can only reach the knock-out stages of this competition by beating us and ensuring we are deprived of a bonus point in the process. 

“We now know what we have to do,” declared Townsend. "We've got to produce probably our best performance of the year, one of our best ever performances. That's the whole goal of why we work in training, what we've learned this year. We have to bring that out for 80 minutes.”

Scotland Head Coach Gregor Townsend during Scotland’s game against Tonga at the Rugby World Cup in France. [Inpho/Craig Watson]

There was no doubt Ireland looked far from world beaters in the first half during their last clash with the Scots after Caelan Doris was forced off early doors after hurting his hip. To compound matters in the scrum, hooker Dan Sheehan and second row powerhouse Iain Henderson both also had to leave the pitch within 10 minutes of Doris’s departure.

It definitely seemed that Ireland’s luck was out early in the second half when replacement hooker Ronan Kelleher was unable to continue with a leg injury, forcing replacement prop, the veteran Cian Healy to play in the middle of the front row, while backrower Josh van der Flier looked after throwing in duties at lineout time.

Remarkably with so much disruption in the pack, particularly at hooker, Ireland actually problem-solved amazingly well in that second moiety and ended up extending their slender 8-7 half-time lead to 22-7 by game’s end.

The same Doris recalls coming off in the first 10 minutes, accepting that thereafter “it was a pretty wild game.”

He said, "Cian Healy was scrummaging at hooker and Josh was throwing the ball in, it was a wild game, but hopefully things will go a little bit better this time," added the rampaging No 8.

This was one game in particular where Farrell’s trust in allowing the players to find solutions to on-field problems passed with flying colors. Going into that match Scotland had their own notions about winning the Grand Slam and it was that Ireland win against the head in Edinburgh which fuelled ambitions to do well in both major competitions even further.

After the seismic win over South Africa in Paris, Ireland’s squad enjoyed a few days off before knuckling down again last Thursday for the task in hand against the Scots.

"Some teams obviously had their week off at the start and some have it at the end which makes for four games in a row, which is a little bit tougher, but the timing of this has been good,” he remarked after enjoying, like the other players, the freedom to be with family for a few days.

As the countdown continues, Doris accesses the opponents in clear terms. "I think they're a quality team, I think Finn Russell is a bit of a maverick and leads them very well, and he's capable of sort of doing something from nothing.

"And from a back row perspective, I obviously always keep quite a close eye on back rows on other teams and they've got a quality one.

"I think we're aware, partly because of how close a game it was and how big a Test match and spectacle it was, given it was in Paris and the traveling support, you kind of feel a bit of a buzz off the back of it.

"But within camp we're definitely aware that we're still in the group stages. Nothing is concrete at all yet. We still have a massive match to come. We want to finish the group stages on a high definitely. We feel there's a lot more from us performance wise, definitely, so the lads are ready for work and ready to go again,” he stressed.

Farrell and his skipper Johnny Sexton have always been aware of how big a potential banana skin this game is. Sexton in particular will want to unleash the Irish attack while keeping a close eye on his opposite number Russell, who is capable of sleight of hand and creating havoc if given the chance.

The  38-year-old still has this inner demand to show opposing teams what he is capable of and it is that desire and leadership which makes me give a slightly hesitant vote for the men in green to advance come Saturday night.