Reality check for Irish rugby, from world number one to underdogs in Scotland

David Corkery on why the Irish need to get back on track against impressive Scots
Reality check for Irish rugby, from world number one to underdogs in Scotland

Scotland's Stuart Hogg drops the ball while trying to score a try during the Guinness Six Nations match at the Aviva Stadium last season.

IT’S a big one and there is more than just pride and points on the line on Sunday afternoon. 

Any Six Nations encounter is always viewed as a must-win game for Ireland though on this occasion players and management have their backs nailed firmly to the wall and nothing, and I mean nothing, but a win will suffice.

The daggers are out and the dark and secretive corners within the IRFU’s offices are reverberating with dissatisfaction. Unless Andy Farrell and his players can muster up two wins over the next two weeks, the daggers might well be sent for sharpening.

All the excuses in the world can be put forward, but two losses from three outings is of no use to Phillip Browne and his accountants.

The Six Nations is the IRFU’s bread and butter means commercial and financial betterment and the lower they finish in the table the less they accumulate.

It seems strange that just before the commencement of the 2019 World Cup in Japan when Ireland were ludicrously ranked number one on the order of merit table, some folk were teeing us up to be crowned champions.

Fast forward 18 months and now the barometer has changed from winning the World Cup to seeing how we will get on against Scotland.

I know only too well just how fickle sport can be, but from the expectancies of winning a World Cup to wondering if we can beat Scotland is a very sharp fall from grace over such a short period of time.

Let there be little doubt about it that Scotland have improved over the last two years and they have some serious strike runners in their back division.

However, when you look at the Pro 14 league tables and see just how well our four provinces are doing, surely Andy Farrell can find a way of feeding off their momentum and transferring it into the national side.

The IRFU may well have discarded the amateur club game in order to feed the insatiable beast that is professional rugby, but credit must be given to them on how they run the four provinces and the coherent success of these teams over the years is proof that their system works.

Okay, Munster and Ulster could do with a bit of silverware, but they are always there or thereabouts, and on their day, they can compete with any side on the planet.

Leinster seem to be operating in a completely separate stratosphere at this point and their representation on the Irish team is a clear reflection of their success. Their schools and academy structures seem to be working well together and there is a constant conveyor belt of highly polished players being fed into Leo Cullen’s hands.

The Pro 14 final on March 27 between Munster and Leinster is going to be one hell of a game and if there was ever an opportunity for Munster to make a statement of intent, this game offers them the perfect opportunity.

Conor Murray at training. Picture: INPHO/Morgan Treacy
Conor Murray at training. Picture: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

The return of Jacob Stockdale to the Irish squad for the next two games has indicated that Farrell is looking to bolster his side's defensive proficiencies and James Lowe might well be the one to lose out.

Stockdale missed Ireland’s opening three fixtures due to a knee injury but is now ready to put on the green jersey once more after making a successful return to action with Ulster over the weekend.

Lowe on the other hand has struggled with his defensive positioning and while he is a sight to behold going forward, Farrell is clearly worried about the attacking intimidations offered by Scotland’s captain Stuart Hogg and their formidable winger, Duhan van der Merwe.

South African-born van der Merwe and Hogg have established themselves as two of the best-attacking backs in the Six Nations and any lack of concentration or poorly executed kicks with these two running at you and Ireland will find themselves huddled under their goalposts wondering what just happened.

The importance of starting well in this game cannot be over-emphasised enough and that means that the Irish lineout must function at the highest possible level.

In planning for this to happen Paul O’Connell and his students need not to worry about the presence of the 6' 10" Richie Gray who will not be available due to a head injury. On the flip side is that Grey’s replacement Sam Skinner has earned himself a recall and as he showed on Saturday while playing for Exeter he knows exactly where the try line is when he pounced for a double.

The likelihood is that Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray will pair up again for this game and I just really hope Murray is instructed to keep the ball in hand.

If Irish rugby is ever going to move away from the kick and hope formula of gaining territory, they must simply keep the ball, build multiple phases and vary their attacking options.

This Irish squad is full of damaging talent, but they must be given the green light by their coaches to play heads-up rugby. With players like Ringrose, Earls, Stockdale, Larmour, Keenan and Lowe all screaming to run with the ball, it would be a shame not to feed them with as much of it as is feasible.

Ireland should win, but the Titanic was also considered unsinkable.

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