Ireland need points, no doubt. But they must respect their Scottish opposition first and foremost.
Ireland travel to Murrayfield tomorrow in search of a second consecutive 6 Nations championship. Straight after proceedings in Edinburgh, the nation will switch over to ‘Le Crunch’, in prayer for a competitive French performance in London.
Yes, we know the permutations at this stage. Should both Ireland and England win, Joe Schmidt’s side need to beat Scotland by four more points than England beat France. Don’t count out the Welsh who will look to run up a big score in Rome in an attempt to capture the title themselves.
But a focus on scoring as many points as possible is a dangerous game as Ireland have learned in the past. England are at an advantage, and will know exactly what they need to do at kick-off.
In 2007, both Ireland and France entered the final day locked at three wins apiece. Ireland had the earlier kick-off, and recorded an impressive 24-51 win. With the game almost over, Ireland led 17-51, and unsure of the target they needed to set France, elected to run the ball from a penalty deep in their own half. The possession was turned over, and Roland de Marigney ran in for a converted try. France ultimately won the championship with a points difference of four points superior to Ireland. Had Brian O’Driscoll elected that Ireland kick to touch and end the game, Ireland would have won the championship themselves. It was a case of what might have been.
However, there is no hope of running up 50 points against this Scottish outfit. Under Vern Cotter, Scotland have improved no end. A November win over Argentina and an impressive showing against New Zealand left the side in good shape facing into the 6 Nations. However, luck has not been on their side, and they have lost four out of four. The Scots were competitive in all games, and realistically could have won three against France, Wales, and Italy.
Facing down the barrel of a Wooden Spoon, the Scottish rugby public must be at a loss as to how they have reached this point. But this makes the Scots all the more dangerous. This side are viewed as too good for a Wooden Spoon. At home, they will quietly fancy themselves to take a scalp.
Scotland are a side which teams struggle to break down, despite dominance. Stuart Lancaster was left scratching his head at half time last week, with the sides locked at 10-10 following England’s most impressive 40 minutes of rugby so far in the tournament.
Scotland are seldom beaten well, and Ireland are currently a side set up to grind teams down, rather than to play swashbuckling rugby. Changing the style would be hazardous. In the 2007 World Cup, Ireland faced Argentina in the final match of the group knowing that a big win was vital for progression. But they went for the jugular too early, refusing kickable penalties and going for the corner instead. Argentina won the game.
First and foremost, Ireland must focus on winning tomorrow’s game, and let the points difference look after itself.
So the possibility of the Scots causing an upset has been discussed, but England v France is no foregone conclusion either. France are going through a tough period at present, but are as liable to deliver one of those vintage performances as ever. Phillipe Saint Andre’s side will be confident that they can deliver a result, as all the talk in England also revolves around their prospective winning margin. This French side were much closer in Dublin than their English counterpart.
Write Scotland off at your peril. They will be competitive on Saturday. Ireland must figure out how to put Scotland away first, and when this is done, concentrate on running up a big score.
Brian Barry, Pundit Arena.