By Tadhg Peavoy
Sport is a result-orientated business: always. And Joe Schmidt is under orders from the IRFU to claim a top-three finish in each year’s Six Nations to ensure a financial reward that will be commensurate with what the governing body budgets each year.
With that focus in mind, one must analyse Schmidt’s team selections for the last match against Italy, and this Saturday’s battle with Scotland.
Caution to the wind against Italy would have left Ireland open. Hypothetically it could have led to an under-par and patchy performance and if Italy had turned up – which they failed to with a miserable and wretched performance – Ireland could potentially have lost that tie in Dublin. As it was Schmidt played it very safe selection wise and a settled side hammered the dismal Azzurri.
Fast forward a week and Ireland, off that platform, have the confidence and stability to face Scotland knowing a win will more than likely give then a final table position of third behind England and Wales.
Given that this would satisfy the demands of Schmidt’s bosses in the boardroom and also send Ireland heading into their three-Test tour of South Africa with a two-match winning streak, the wisdom of Schmidt’s conservatism becomes more apparent.
And the coach has once more gone with reliability with his team selection to face Scotland, with Tommy O’Donnell coming in for Josh van der Flier at openside the only change. O’Donnell lends more experience and a better groundhog ability at the breakdown and that more than likely edged the selection battle for that position. Rhys Ruddock will offer support off the bench in his usual ultra-physical and direct manner.
Simon Zebo gets another chance to show his wares in the fullback slot, now clearly his main position for Ireland, and another good showing here could actually press his candidature for being the first choice in the slot ahead of Rob Kearney.
Schmidt’s opposite number Vern Cotter has made three changes to his Scotland side. Duncan Weir coming in for Finn Russell (concussion) is enforced. Similarly Tim Swinson coming in for Johnnie Gray (pectoral tear) is forced, while Ryan Wilson replaces Josh Strauss at No 8.
Cotter, like Schmidt, is looking for consistency. A third-place finish would guarantee a best Six Nations for the Scots since 2013, and with the rankings for the 2019 Rugby World Cup likely to be decided by World Rugby at the end of this year, a win here would be huge for both sides.
Ireland currently sit seventh in the rankings, with Scotland ninth, France are wedged between them in eighth, meaning this game will massively affect the overall placings come the end of the year.
Scotland have two matches in Japan this summer, and Ireland, with their three in South Africa, have no guarantees of wins before the autumn Tests, which further adds to the intrigue and importance of Saturday’s tie at the Aviva.
All of that sets this up to be a humdinger. Add in that Scotland have been the best side to watch in the championship to date, with superb attacking displays in defeat to Wales and in victory over France, and they will represent a real threat to Ireland.
Scotland have been playing their open, offloading style since Cotter took charge of the Dark Blues in 2014. It didn’t pay off in the 2015 Six Nations with the Scots claiming a Wooden Spoon. But at the Rugby World Cup they were within a whisker – and two bad refereeing decisions – of reaching the RWC semis. That form has carried over into this Six Nations where they have looked every bit the coming team in Europe.
Ireland’s journey since Schmidt took over in 2013 has been very different. For two full seasons Ireland played a brand of kick-chase and territory rugby, which yielded those two back-to-back Six Nations wins, but was horribly shown up as inadequate in the World Cup when they were humbled by Argentina in the quarter-finals. And so only since the start of this Six Nations have we begun to see Schmidt expand the repertoire of his side.
Their continuing attempt to play rugby with ball in hand is in its infancy, but the desire to do so has made Ireland a very different team to play against. The predictability is gone, but as is always the case, a team in transition is vulnerable, and they are very much that now.
This is teed-up to be one of the games of the championship, with two teams playing the rugby the world wants to see. An upset, with the Scots claiming a first win in Dublin since 2010, would not be a huge shock.
But Ireland’s crucial home advantage, and a superior half-back line, are likely to see Ireland home.
Prediction: Ireland to win by six.
Ireland: 15-Simon Zebo, 14-Andrew Trimble, 13-Jared Payne, 12-Robbie Henshaw, 11-Keith Earls, 10-Jonathan Sexton, 9-Conor Murray; 1-Jack McGrath, 2-Rory Best (c), 3-Mike Ross, 4-Donnacha Ryan, 5-Devin Toner, 6-CJ Stander, 7-Tommy O’Donnell, 8-Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements: 16-Richardt Strauss, 17-Cian Healy, 18-Nathan White, 19-Ultan Dillane, 20-Rhys Ruddock, 21-Eoin Reddan, 22-Ian Madigan, 23-Fergus McFadden.
Scotland: 15-Stuart Hogg, 14-Tommy Seymour, 13-Duncan Taylor, 12-Alex Dunbar, 11-Tim Visser, 10-Duncan Weir, 9-Greig Laidlaw (c); 1-Alasdair Dickinson, 2-Ross Ford, 3-Willem Nel, 4-Richie Gray, 5-Tim Swinson, 6-John Barclay, 7-John Hardie, 8-Ryan Wilson.
Replacements: 16-Stuart McInally, 17-Rory Sutherland, 18- Moray Low, 19-Rob Harley, 20-Josh Strauss, 21-Henry Pyrgos, 22-Peter Horne, 23-Sean Lamont.