The 6 Nations has an ever changing nature from week to week and we may have been very quick to forget the chances of Ireland following their defeat at home to England and the injuries that followed, and they can keep championship hopes alive with a victory against Scotland at Murrayfield today.
Declan Kidney’s side were joint favourites before their crunch clash with England, but a whole host of handling errors – thanks in no small part to a horrendously wet day in Dublin - held back their cause in a 6-12 defeat, which also saw them lose 5 key players to injury or suspension; And those absentees form no small part of the spine of the Ireland side.
Simon Zebo’s broken foot rules him out of the rest of the tournament, with experienced and steady hand Gordon D’Arcy ruled out for largely the same reason, while pre-tournament Lions favourite Jonathan Sexton (hamstring) and second rower Mike McCarthy (knee) will miss at least today’s match; Prop Cian Healy’s disgusting and reckless indiscretions were well deserving of a longer ban than the three weeks he is suspended for but his absence from the scrums and he breakdowns will be no less damaging, even if deserved.
Despite what some might say, that’s not the end of the world for the Irish, as damaging as those absences will be. O’Gara struggled badly once put on against England – missing a sitter as soon as Jaames Haskell was in the bin – and was no better against the Scarlets last week, missing three out of 5 penalties in a toothless performance which has shown his marked decline over the past two or three seasons.
To say that this is a baptism of fire for Ulster’s Paddy Jackson would be an understatement but anyone who has seen him play for Ulster will know that he’s been a future Ireland 10 for quite some time and his exploits with Ulster will have given him plenty of experience at the best of club level – the only thing comparable towards test rugby without being the real thing. Many will point towards his below par performance in last year’s Heineken Cup final but Ruardih Jackson hasn’t reached that level with Glasgow Warriors at club level and Ulster were clearly second best to Leinster on the day, leaving Jackson with a pack that was going backwards from minute 1 to 80; Many have also credited much of his growth at Ulster with Ruan Piennar’s presence in the No.9 shirt, but Conor Murray’s had his best season in the No.9 shirt for Munster and should be on a decent wavelength with his halfback partner.
Luke Marshall also has a huge responsibility on his first start in the 12 jersey but he’s shown much of the same progress that his clubmate Jackson has, while the rest of the replacements are more than capable of filling the gap left by the absences. For all that Ireland were disappointing against England, that same side is now 4/7 for the Grand Slam, and just a week earlier they were tearing Wales apart at the Millennium Stadium before holding off a fightback despite having two men in the bin during the second half – they still won by 8 points in the end.
Scotland were truly dire in the Autumn but are really reaping the benefit of Tim Visser’s inclusion in the side following his residency and the coaching change from Andy Robinson to Scott Johnson has worked wonders on the evidence of their first two performances, especially their34-10 thrashing of Italy. The fact they they’ve scored 6 tries at this stage of the championship already is a revelation and a real sign of progress, and you couldn’t help but be impressed by their power and pace from broken play against the Italians, but they might have been overrated in the context of their following their win against a desperately poor France – who were much improved with players in the right positions yesterday at Twiceknham – and there’s no way that the Irish will allow anywhere near as much time and space for the Scots, who thrive on broken play from end to end – their two tries at Twickenham came from line breaks, and two of their four tries against Italy came deliberately from opposing errors, including Start Hogg’s spectacular burst. The hosts will provide a tremendous challenge for the Irish, who will have to be on their guard and far sharper than they were against England, but the victors looks to have more than enough class to come through this tests and have lost one in their last 12 matches against the Scots in the 6 Nations, so looks good value to win by 1-12 points, as they’ve done in their last 3 tournament games here.
5 pts Ireland to win by 1-12 points (8/5 Boylesports, Paddy Power)