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Alan Quinlan: Irish need to show a lightning pace from very start

 

Peter O'Mahony
Peter O'Mahony

By Alan Quinlan

Those outside the bubble of professional sport often find it difficult to comprehend how a team fails to reach the right emotional pitch for a fixture of great magnitude, but it can easily happen.

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Different things fire you up for different games. You need to separate them in your mind, to find a cause for each battle, if you want to get to the psychological space required to produce an optimum performance.

You would have thought that the visit of the old enemy would have had Joe Schmidt's players foaming at the mouth but they got caught with a body blow early on and they never really recovered.

The challenge isn't any more straightforward in Edinburgh today, and you would expect, all things considered - such as Ireland's casualty ward now operating at near full capacity - that a slow start could be fatal this afternoon. It's just not an option.

Murrayfield may not be the most intimidating place in the world to play but Ireland teams have been scarred enough there in recent years that the Class of 2019 will know they must proceed with caution.

Last week will have hurt. Really hurt. Defeats like that can rattle you to the core. But refocusing on another game is the best thing for it.

Getting the opportunity to put things right just seven days later is the perfect antidote to the malaise that comes from such an underwhelming performance.

There may only be eight players in today's match-day 23 who featured in Murrayfield two years ago, due to a variety of reasons, but you can be certain that the opening-round 27-22 defeat has been revisited in the Ireland camp this week.

Leaving the stadium that day, I remember thinking that Ireland wouldn't be able to properly make amends for the defeat for another two years.

The bus incident was merely a sideshow. Ireland struggled to get up to speed and while they eventually got motoring, they stalled and lost their way after edging ahead in the finishing straight.

Ireland actually ended up on the right side of the possession, territory, penalty and carrying statistics two years ago, but behind where it really mattered.

They weren't as comprehensively beaten as they were last week, but it was a defeat that also stuck in the craw.

Just five of today's Irish starting XV were on the field when the Scots dotted down three times in the first half two years ago - Rory Best, Tadhg Furlong, Sean O'Brien, Conor Murray and Rob Kearney -while Scotland can call on 10 of the same men who began that Six Nations opener.

In fact, the Scots have named an almost identical backline to the one that took the field that day, the scorer of their third try, Alex Dunbar, is the only absentee, with Sam Johnson earning his second cap at outside centre.

Stuart Hogg managed to exploit space out wide for both of his tries in 2017 and you can be certain that Scotland will be targeting those areas again.

They created a number of opportunities in similar areas at the Aviva last year and could easily have come away with a victory had their passing not been so loose, butchering a number of glorious opportunities and Jacob Stockdale scoring an intercept try.

They have plenty of talent in the backline and while they aren't as hefty as England up front, they still pack quite a punch.

You wouldn't expect anything less from a team coached by Gregor Townsend, a gifted rugby player in his day who could also front up physically when required.

I never played against Gregor in an international but I faced him a number of times at club level, most memorably when Munster played Castres five times in 18 months - he played in every meeting, I missed one - culminating in our 25-17 semi-final success in Beziers in April 2002.

Even then you could see that Gregor would make an excellent coach one day; he was so vocal and read the game so well.

He was a nightmare to play against, a running fly-half who could put you on your backside with an inside step with seeming ease.

In an international arena dominated by Kiwi and Australian coaches, you could argue that Townsend is the leading northern hemisphere-born head coach in the game at the moment.

He did a superb job at Glasgow, is highly regarded by players, and continues to evolve his tactics.

Having played in Scotland, France and South Africa, Gregor has developed a well-rounded approach to the game and today he pits his considerable rugby mind against one of the sport's leading thinkers.

Schmidt has spoken publicly this week about his players getting bullied and manhandled by England and that will have stung greatly, particularly among the forwards.

He is probing for a reaction, urging his players to prove that it was just an early stumble.

One early turnover, or carry that knocks a Scotsman back on his rear end, would help settle the inevitable Irish nerves. Ireland will be looking to the likes of Furlong, O'Brien or Peter O'Mahony to grab this game by the scruff of the neck early.

The breakdown battle has traditionally been decisive in Murrayfield. It's often led to chaotic games in Edinburgh but it has been a strength in the Scottish game for a long time.

And in 22-year-old openside Jamie Ritchie, Townsend seems to have a gem on his hands who will be a real nuisance.

There is a lot of pressure on Quinn Roux to perform today too, particularly in the lineout.

Schmidt has shown faith in the Connacht lock in recent times and it was a big call to select him ahead of his clubmate Ultan Dillane, who probably brings more energy around the field, something that was sorely lacking seven days ago.

There needs to be greater vigour in Irish tackles and carries. I want to see desperation in the Irish eyes to make that extra yard that we saw against New Zealand in November. The All Blacks instil that fear in you, push you to be at your best.

This is not a day for slow starts. Ireland need to put their foot down from the first whistle and not let up until the last. Fail to do that and unreliable Scottish transport will be the least of their worries.

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