By Phil Rice
At the Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Following an eventful Six Nations weekend Ireland have established a five-point lead at the top of the table. Theoretically the Six Nations Championship could be theirs if results go their way on Saturday week.
Of course, the target is a Grand Slam, but head coach Joe Schmidt deflects all talk beyond the next game. “We live in a bit of a bubble during the Championship,” he said, as he described the weekly routine of his team.
Even Schmidt’s arch rival, Wales coach Warren Gatland, had to concede that the Irish coach was getting things right.
“I thought they moved the ball brilliantly well and they were so exciting in the way they played today,” he commented. “They were really good. All credit to Joe and the team. They’re definitely going in the right direction.”
This from a man who has been critical of Ireland and Schmidt’s tactics in the past. He has clearly revised his opinion as he indicated after the game.
Gatland added: “I have to apologise to Joe if I upset him a couple of years ago by being critical of the way they played, I thought they were outstanding.”
In fact, Ireland were far more creative with the ball in hand than Wales last Saturday. Johnny Sexton controlled the game superbly from fly half, despite struggling with a glute injury which clearly affected his place kicking.
Ireland dominated all aspects of the game but worryingly were hanging on to a tenuous three-point lead approaching 80 minutes.
Three wins from three in the Championship and a ten match unbeaten run would indicate that all must be rosy in the garden, but closer analysis shows they have conceded six tries in the last two matches and their defence has looked decidedly shaky at times.
Winger Jacob Stockdale has scored an impressive eight tries in his seven caps to date but he still has much to learn regarding defence.
He has a tendency to drift in from his wing when defending, exposing gaping space on his flank. Both Italy and Wales exploited this profitably and if there is any side in the Championship who are equipped to benefit from being offered space out wide it is Scotland, who have an extremely fleet-footed back three.
Scotland began the Championship dismally, losing heavily to Wales but they have recovered speedily from that aberration by beating both France and England.
Last weekend they created the biggest upset of the competition to date by comfortably beating pre-tournament favourites England in Edinburgh.
Eddie Jones’ team have looked surprisingly vulnerable and a rampant Scotland exposed their uncertainty in defence and surprisingly matched the big English pack up front.
The Scots certainly perform at a different level in front of their fervent fans at Murrayfield and Ireland will hope their away form continues to be less impressive.
Ireland suffered significant late withdrawals before last weekend’s game when three of their key players failed fitness tests.
Tadhg Furlong’s absence was particularly worrying, but there was no need for concern as 21-year-old Andrew Porter followed up his fine game against Italy with another outstanding performance for one so young, at tight head prop.
Robbie Henshaw’s replacement Chris Farrell had a man of the match performance at outside centre and has given Schmidt a selection headache, with last week’s return to fitness of Leinster’s Garry Ringrose.
Farrell’s defence was superb and that factor might be decisive, given the form of Huw Jones at outside centre for Scotland.
James Ryan returned to the second row in place of Iain Henderson, who was struggling with a hamstring strain.
Twenty-one-year-old Ryan is being suggested as a potential Ireland captain in the future. He has certainly demonstrated maturity beyond his years in his performances for Ireland thus far.
There is the possibility that Sean O’Brien might be available for the final two matches, but he would need to get some game time this weekend for Leinster if he is to line out against the Scots.
Furlong and Iain Henderson are both expected to return to the team for Scotland, and Ireland will be hoping their presence will give them an advantage in the pack.
Despite their atrocious start to the campaign, Scotland are now serious contenders for the title and they will come to Dublin brimming with confidence after last weekend’s win.
They thrive in broken play situations and Irish defence coach Andy Farrell will need to work overtime during the coming week.
If Ireland manage a bonus point win over Scotland and England fail to match them against France in Paris, the Championship will belong to Ireland.
However, England managed to win the Championship with one game to go last season and we all remember what happened in the final game.
At this stage Schmidt will be disappointed with anything other than a Grand Slam, but he will be determined that his team look no further than the Scottish game.
The final two matches were always expected to be Ireland’s toughest and there is no reason to change that expectation. When George North came on last weekend for the final 15 minutes, he created havoc in the Irish defence.
The Scottish backline are far more threatening than their Welsh equivalents, and Ireland will need to spend much of their preparation time working on their porous defence.
Scotland have improved with every game and next week’s match promises to be highly entertaining, with both sides committed to attack.