Triple Crown deciders don’t come much bigger than this as Scotland look to halt Ireland’s Grand Slam hopes. Thomas Booth looks ahead to the weekend’s premiere clash. We’re now past the halfway stage and have arrived at the penultimate round of this year’s Six Nations. On offer are the usual tasty early spring games. Italy and Wales start proceedings on Saturday. That match-up is then followed by ‘Le Crunch’ at Twickenham HQ. On Sunday Celtic neighbours Scotland and Ireland will contest for the honour of winning the Centenary Quaich.
Triple Crown decider!
Officials, history and home advantage
England’s Luke Pearce will officiate Scotland and Ireland’s 140th meeting. Wayne Barnes and Christophe Ridley will provide support to Pearce. Stuart Terheege will be the TMO. These teams first met in 1877. In that time there have been sixty eight Irish victories, sixty six Scotland victories and five draws.
Since the beginning of the award of the Centenary Quaich (Quaich is a drinking vessel) in 1989 Ireland have won 19 times to Scotland’s 14. Overall, home advantage plays a significant role in determining the outcome. As of now Scotland have a 60% win ratio at home. Having said that, Ireland’s win ratio at Murrayfield over their last 10 Six Nations games is at a healthy 80%. Will being in familiar surroundings help the Scots this time around?
Takeaways from the previous round
Scotland fought gamely against France and had to play catch-up after some devastating early French scores. In truth they could have still won the game until France added some late gloss with a Gael Fickou try. Again, it was a great advert for Six Nations rugby. However, the question still remains around whether Scotland flatter to deceive, or whether they are more robust than that? Pre-World Cup, if they were to come out on top in the Triple Crown decider, then perhaps they do have a team to fear. Speaking of a team that is already the real-deal; Ireland kept up their winning run at Italy which means they are on course for a Grand Slam. They are also Sunday’s favourites without being overwhelmingly so. They weren’t at their best last time out, but Italy are an improving, competitive side in their latest incarnation.
A further sub-plot to this game is that both Scotland and Ireland will feature in the same group in the World Cup in France. They will join South Africa, Tonga and Romania. Will Sunday’s result have any bearing on what will happen in the Autumn? Perhaps not, given that the teams and players are already very familiar with one another. Scotland’s summer tests against Italy, France and Georgia might be a better barometer of form. Ireland are yet to release details of any summer fixtures. The caveat to using those matches as a gauge, will be that the coaching staff will be experimenting with line-ups and game-plans.
📈 The stats leaders for @Scotlandteam, @FranceRugby and @IrishRugby ✨#SageInsights | @sageuk pic.twitter.com/zksD2bQBLt
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) March 9, 2023
Wales and England
Wales’ loss resulted in England having an outlook that could be represented by an upward curve. Their Welsh neighbours continue to plateau, or head downward on their curve. Your view of where Wales are might depend on whether you are a glass half-full, or half-empty kind of person. The proposed Ealing-Ospreys merger, possibility of Wales downsizing to two regions, news of international players not being able to concentrate because of worry over contracts and revelations of the WRU happily slurping at the financial trough whilst having the outlook of a 1970s pub bore is leaving fans angry, scared, and frustrated. The optimists are wildly scrabbling around for the evidence of shoots of recovery.
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Both Scotland and Ireland have strong squads to pick from. Ireland’s squad is now and has been for a while, at the same level as France, New Zealand and South Africa’s, and could be described as being formidable. Scotland will be without lock Grant Gilchrist who will serve a three-week ban for his red card for a high tackle against France.
His ban has been reduced from six weeks after Gilchrist admitted his mistake and because of a lack of intent.
The final game of his suspension covers Edinburgh’s trip to face Connacht in the United Rugby Championship on 25 March. However, the judicial committee accepted Gilchrist’s application to go to a tackle coaching course instead of serving the final match of his ban.
Ireland welcome back lynchpin Johnny Sexton, British and Irish Lion centre Robbie Henshaw, current first-choice number nine Jamison Gibson-Park, and world class prop Tadhg Furlong for the Triple Crown decider. Any international team surely, would be happy to see these lads returning to the fold.
When Sexton and O’Driscoll combine, special things happen ☘️#AwakenAnticipation | #SCOvIRE pic.twitter.com/4JDM062Jqi
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) March 8, 2023
Where will the game be won and lost?
Ireland are favourites. Scotland haven’t won a Triple Crown since 1990. In that time Ireland have won six. Scotland have been playing well and have the carrot of some silverware as motivation. Ireland have a developing winning mentality which has seen them get over the line against New Zealand and France.
Ireland’s intimidating and settled set of forwards know their roles inside out. They have one of the forwards of the tournament so far in Caolin Doris and current World Rugby Player of the Year Josh van der Flier. Their kicking game is excellent with Sexton, Gibson-Park and Keenan to the fore. The latter is also a dangerous runner, as are Ireland’s wingers. In Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw they have the option to play crash-ball also. Long story short, they have an all-court game which they can vary depending on how the match is going. Did I mention they do the basics well too? Their scrum and line-out is solid, to put it mildly.
Scotland want to be where Ireland are and are moving in the right direction. Whilst they too have many strings to their bow and can play in more than one way, Ireland overall, are stronger. Scotland’s backs are the ones to really make the headlines this year. Finn Russell, Huw Jones and Duhan van der Merwe have lit up the tournament so far. Russell remains high-risk but is box-office. He tops the stats in terms of try assists, carries, offloads and conversions.
Russell and Sexton
At nine and ten (for both teams), who will be put under the most pressure? Will playmakers Sexton and Russell be targeted with the intention to put them off their game? Obviously discipline is a factor. While both fly-halves are great kickers, Scotland will need to keep their penalty count low in their own half as Sexton is experienced and reliable from the tee. They may opt to kick for the corners bringing their forwards into play. This opens up opportunities for a line-out drive, or alternatively Ireland could deploy a complex set-piece move utilizing their backs and employing dummy loops and decoy runners .
Scotland will compete in the crucial breakdown area with Ireland, as they will at scrum time. The Scottish pack may tire and this could be vital in determining the game. How will Pearce & his team officiate the scrum and breakdown? Will it be Scotland, or Ireland who can create the pictures that the referee needs to see?
Scotland have more to lose on Sunday in this writer’s opinion. Ireland are in excellent shape no matter what happens and have accumulated a lot of credit in the bank over the last twenty four months. Scotland are more of an unknown quantity. Ireland still overly rely on Sexton to pull the strings, but this year’s Six Nations has seen Ross Byrne and to a lesser extent Jack Crowley come to the fore.
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