By Phil Rice
Three wins from three and five points clear at the top of the Six Nations Championship is an impressive record to date for Ireland.
However, closer inspection of the facts reveals a worrying trend for Andy Farrell the defence coach. Six opposition tries in the last two matches is not acceptable, particularly for a perfectionist like Joe Schmidt.
Ireland’s next opponents, Scotland, have a far more potent backline than either Italy or Wales, their speedy back three will be licking their lips at the prospect of taking on Ireland’s wide defence.
It is indeed surprising that such a detail-orientated coach as Joe Schmidt hasn’t dealt with the tendency for Ireland’s wingers to leave gaping space out wide for the opposition to exploit.
This is not a new failing for the Irish defence, we all remember how Argentina exploited the wide areas in the last World Cup, and a number of other sides since.
Farrell is revered as one of the finest defence coaches of his generation, yet this frailty continues to blight Ireland’s defence.
Reviewing the video of at least four of the six tries scored in the last two matches shows both Keith Earls and particularly Jacob Stockdale, drifting inwards as the opposition spread the ball wide.
In fact, in the final play of the Welsh game, had Gareth Anscombe thrown his looping pass six inches higher, we would probably be castigating Stockdale for costing us the match with his terrible positional play, rather than celebrating his intercept try.
Scotland’s head coach Gregor Townsend will certainly play an expansive game, his team know no other way. We can only hope that the bad weather hasn’t prevented Farrell from drilling his wide defenders with better technique and that the acres of space out wide are closed down.
The Ireland number 13 shirt is certainly living up to its unlucky superstition with its latest victim Chris Farrell unavailable for the remainder of the season after a training ground injury to his ACL.
Jared Payne, Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and now Farrell have all suffered with serious injury this season. Fortunately Ringrose was able to get 55 minutes game time with Leinster last weekend and is likely to fill the shirt this week.
Ringrose has been criticised for his defensive lapses in the past and the team are certainly missing Payne’s defensive organisation which proved so effective for the past few seasons.
Ireland will attempt to stifle Scotland of possession and with Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson likely to return this week, they should gain the upper hand up front. If Scotland are retreating on their own possession, it makes Ireland’s defensive job that much easier.
Sexton and Murray will need to be on their most accurate kicking form, as any loose kicks will be exploited by the talented Scottish back three. Stuart Hogg in particular is the most potent counter attacking fullback in world rugby.
Arguably the most impressive three-quarter in the Six Nations to date has been Scotland’s outside centre Huw Jones. He has the knack of scoring tries from unlikely situations and he will be a real test for Ringrose to contain.
Scotland’s fly half Finn Russell is an enigma, he can be devastating with his vision and unpredictability, but he can also make glaring unforced errors, particularly when his possession is limited and he is pressurised.
Dan Leavy has been exceptional for Ireland so far and he will need to ensure the Scottish number ten has restricted space in which to operate. Schmidt is unlikely to make changes other than for those who have recovered from injury.
He will have a difficult decision as to whom will join Henderson in the second-row. Devin Toner is playing some of the best rugby of his life at present and guarantees a steady flow of line out possession.
But James Ryan has been a revelation since he joined the team this season and his mobility might just tip things in his favour, especially against such a mobile team as Scotland. Johnny Sexton had a rare off-day with his place kicking against Wales.
He received a painkilling jab before the game and this has been blamed for his inaccuracy. He will need to be back to his usual accurate form this week. Scotland appear to perform to a far higher level when playing at their Murrayfield home rather than away.
Their away performance against Wales was appalling, as opposed to their brilliance at home against England in their last match. Ireland will be hoping this trend persists and if it does they should arrive at Twickenham on St. Patrick’s Day with a realistic hope of winning the Grand Slam.