Tyrone Howe: Scotland game make or break for Ireland coach Kidney
Murrayfield on Sunday represents the midpoint of Ireland’s Six Nations campaign. It will provide a clearer picture of what sort of shape the team is in not much more than six months before the World Cup.
To be more blunt, it is the make or break game of the Six Nations for Declan Kidney.
Lose and confidence really will take a beating and serious questions will be asked. The improved performance against France will be forgotten and Ireland would travel to Wales in need of serious redemption.
Win and it will be what we are all expecting. While defeat is unthinkable, it sort of sounds like a no-win situation.
The only way that Kidney and his men can come out of Sunday’s game in credit is to win and to put in an emphatic and ruthless performance, which displays a clear difference in quality between the two sides.
There is always pressure, particularly so when you are expected to win, but over the last decade, Ireland have become more and more used to being in this position. Nonetheless, I can sense nervousness about this fixture.
Unlike the media shots that are being fired between Messrs Johnson and Lievremont ahead of the England v France clash, the build-up to this game has been largely muted.
Irish memories are still fresh from Rome. Underperformance away from home and an awareness about how Italy managed to frustrate will make the players wary of a similar situation.
Scotland will try to disrupt Ireland’s flow and play their usual scavenging game, based around aggressive competition for the ball around the breakdown.
Declan Kidney will also be aware of the Scottish state of mind.
You have a group of Scottish players and one Englishman, Andy Robinson, who are deeply wounded by their home defeat 10 days ago against Wales.
It hurts to lose, but the manner of their toothless performance will hurt far more.
The team has nothing to lose and will come out like men possessed. The challenge for Ireland is to stay composed, concentrate on the game-plan, keep Scotland on the back foot and score points when they are available in order to quell the Scottish intensity.
This will be easier said than done. This game has traditionally been a de facto derby game — form and preparation often go out the window and it inevitably turns into a dog-fight.
Ireland, while maintaining an aggressive position must rise above this and allow quality to shine through.
The respective injury situations could make a tangible difference in the chances of both sides.
This week we have seen another example of why international coaches like their players plying their trade within a domestic set-up. It is all about control — who plays and how often.
In this regard, Andy Robinson has far less room for manoeuvre than his Irish counterpart.
Having to release and subsequently lose the playing abilities of Rory Lamont and Joe Ansbro, through Toulon and Northampton respectively, seriously undermines Scotland’s ability to score tries.
Robinson, in his quieter moments, must wonder what he has done to deserve such wretched bad luck.
Injuries and positional changes mean that the odds are even more stacked against his team.
Ireland are not without their own issues — the scrumhalf position comes increasingly under the spotlight and it is a shame that Stephen Ferris will not return to the starting XV. However, everyone will feel buoyed by the return of Tommy Bowe.
The Monaghan-man has a warming effect on people off the pitch and a galvanising influence on it. Ireland have been superb once they get into the opposition 22, but further out, they will be boosted by his extra pace and the genuine ability that Bowe possesses to break the line and change the dynamics of a game.
With the foundation of a solid setpiece, Ireland need to try to play a better mix of passing and kicking, with pace and protection of the ball being key ingredients. It is hard, however, to beat the tradition of this game and Scotland will ask tough questions of Ireland’s composure.
It will be a battle, but a battle that Ireland should win by fifteen points.