Scotland v Ireland, Six Nations Championship, March 14
Fear of failure should inspire Ireland
March 12, 2009
Can Ireland coach Declan Kidney keep a lid on the Grand Slam talk ahead of his side's clash with Scotland at Murrayfield? © Getty Images
Ireland's tackle Scotland at Murrayfield on Saturday with a long-awaited Grand Slam triumph tantalisingly close but can they hold their nerve?
Following victories over France, Italy and England, the men in emerald green are just two victories away from their first clean sweep since their only other in 1948. Victory over the Scots will leave Declan Kidney's side facing a likely Championship decider against Wales at the Millennium Stadium later this month but no-one in the Irish camp will dare look that far ahead.
Scotland have been largely disappointing in this year's Six Nations but boosted by victory over Italy last time out - a win that should save them the ignominy of the Wooden Spoon - they will be no pushover. Ireland have failed to hit the heights that they produced against France in their opening success and last time out it appeared that the pressure of history was already weighing heavy on their shoulders.
If that was the case, the bad news for coach Declan Kidney and his players is that the pressure is only going to intensify as each remaining minute of the Championship plays out.
Nowhere was that pressure more evident than in the kicking display of fly-half Ronan O'Gara. The Munsterman missed four penalties in the highly-charged surroundings of Croke Park and a lot can be read from Kidney's immediately leaping to the defence of his No.10 in the aftermath of the game. He knows the 32-year-old is the key to Ireland's assault on the Grand Slam and cannot afford for him to suffer a crisis of confidence at such a crucial stage.
Kidney has decided to tweak his line-up for their latest challenge with some changes more surprising than others. Leinster centre Gordon D'Arcy has been rightfully rewarded for his return to form with his first start for over a year at the expense of Paddy Wallace. But he may struggle to catch the eye if Brian O'Driscoll maintains his recent rich vein of form. Not only is he producing some of the best rugby of his career, he is getting amongst the tries - with one in each of the last three games - and if anyone is going to get Ireland over the line it is the captain. And re-uniting with his long-term provincial team mate could yet push him to greater heights still.
Munster scrum-half Peter Stringer gets the nod over Tomas O'Leary at scrum-half in perhaps a conservative move but his industry will surely serve Ireland well and his long-standing bond with O'Gara will surely act as a psychological crutch should things get tight. Meanwhile in the pack, in-form No.8 Jamie Heaslip is left on the bench in a surprising move. The Leinster forward has been in sparkling form with a series of barn-storming performances but will have to make do with a supporting role against the Scots. If Ireland's title challenge is on the wane in the second half do not be surprised to see both discarded players enter the fray.
In the front row, the experience and leadership qualities of Ulster hooker Rory Best are preferred with Kidney perhaps wary of the need for both to at least get get his side to Cardiff with the dream in-tact. Ireland failed to throw off the shackles against England leaving the likes of fullback Rob Kearney and wingers Tommy Bowe and Luke Fitzgerald to live off scraps and they may have to make do again if fraught nerves stifle any creativity. However, an early score may settle the nerves and that would pose big problems for the hosts.
Any Scotland side with the usually reliable boot of Chris Paterson is a threat and Scotland's most-capped player makes his first start of the Championship. However, Scotland will probably take more heart from the return of Jim Hamilton to the second row where he will partner Jason White. If they are to upset the Irish then a big performance will be required from the pack, and in particular the second row where Ireland's Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan have been in exceptional form.
Success up front will be vital for the Scots if scrum-half and skipper Mike Blair, himself struggling for his best form, is to provide the quick ball for the likes of Max and Thom Evans and Simon Danielli to feed on. Scotland's failure to put the two together on a regular basis has seen them stagnate of late, and if they do not front up the Munster-dominated Irish pack will snuff out any hope of victory. We have seen little from the Scots to suggest that they can de-rail Ireland's quest for the Slam but this is the Six Nations remember where upsets have long been part of the history of the competition.
Ireland set the bar high early in the Championship but their victory over England was not so pleasing on the eye. However, that will not bother Kidney at this stage and he will quite happily live the most grotesque example of 'winning ugly'.
The Irish have won on their last three visits to Edinburgh in the Championship so the arena will hold no fear for them but the pressure of the occasion is another thing altogether. Fear of failure should get Ireland a little nearer to the much-prized Grand Slam - a win, but not by much.
Ireland: R Kearney (Leinster); T Bowe (Ospreys), B O'Driscoll (Leinster, captain), G D'Arcy (Leinster), L Fitzgerald (Leinster); R O'Gara (Munster), P Stringer (Munster); M Horan (Munster), R Best (Ulster), J Hayes (Munster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), P O'Connell (Munster), S Ferris (Ulster), D Wallace (Munster), D Leamy (Munster).
Replacements: J Flannery (Munster), T Court (Ulster), M O'Driscoll (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster), T O'Leary (Munster), P Wallace (Ulster), G Murphy (Leicester
Scotland: Chris Paterson (Edinburgh), Simon Danielli (Ulster), Max Evans (Glasgow Warriors), Graeme Morrison (Glasgow Warriors), Thom Evans (Glasgow Warriors), Phil Godman (Edinburgh), Mike Blair (Edinburgh, capt), Alasdair Dickinson (Gloucester), Ross Ford (Edinburgh), Euan Murray (Northampton Saints), Jim Hamilton (Edinburgh), Jason White (Sale Sharks), Alasdair Strokosch (Gloucester), John Barclay (Glasgow Warriors), Simon Taylor (Stade Francais)
Replacements: Dougie Hall (Glasgow Warriors), Moray Low (Glasgow Warriors), Nathan Hines (Perpignan), Scott Gray (Northampton Saints), Chris Cusiter (Perpignan), Nick De Luca (Edinburgh), Hugo Southwell (Edinburgh)
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa)