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Neil Francis: Iain Henderson and James Ryan must gel if Ireland are to reach World Cup semi-final

 

Crunch time: Iain Henderson will be key for Ireland
Crunch time: Iain Henderson will be key for Ireland

By Neil Francis

I know it's heresy, but I had a tenner on Kerry to beat Dublin in the first All-Ireland final when the Kingdom were 5/1. A draw meant my money went bye-byes.

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Probably in the current environment, the very mention of a bet is not a good idea. Scotland at 3/1 is not enticing enough to risk another tenner. You should look at the betting trends and the spreads for the last few Six Nations, they are eerily precise. 

On that basis, we should be all enjoying our breakfasts on Sunday morning, yet it's my job just to check and see whether an upset could be on the cards.

Scotland, as we all know, are a tricky side, and they have this great facility for just hanging on in games when on the pattern of play they are beaten out of sight, yet the scoreboard tells you they could pick you off at any moment.

Four years of preparation and you are a hostage to circumstance. Ireland are shorn three of their top outside backs before a ball is kicked and our stand-in stand-off Joey Carbery still is not right.

I did mention it last week that Joe Schmidt, who is by no means a regular at the craps tables in the Bellagio, has gambled big time by taking injured players to a World Cup.

Already our bench looks very weak. This, however, is the only competitive match that we have to win in the next four. Unless there is a typhoon blowing, some of our players are carded or some of our key men get injured, this is a match that Ireland should win.

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I look at this Scotland pack with six Edinburgh forwards in its ranks and I look where Edinburgh finished in their Guinness PRO14 pool - a fairly dismal fifth - and wonder how could they sustain themselves at international level?

This is the biggest disparity between the two sides; Ireland's power up front and their ability, even in a wet-weather game, to dominate their blue rivals.

The specifics? Well, the term 'in tandem', which comes from the Latin term 'tandem', is relevant. It is somewhat confusing in that its literal translation means 'at length'. It had agricultural origins in that normally two cattle were put at length to pull a cart or a plough. They worked in tandem.

I look at some of the great second-row pairings in the world - Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock are the perfect partnership: their workload has great balance and each other's strengths dovetail through the course of an 80-minute Test match.

That partnership is coming to an end and may just have enough to work something for the All Blacks in this competition if Retallick recovers from his shoulder injury.

Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha was another great partnership. Bakkies Botha? Now there is an enforcer! Matfield did all the athletic stuff.

Sometimes you can have two very good players playing in your second-row but they might not gel, and for your side to progress harmony in your second-row is one thing that you need to have.

Maro Itoje and George Kruis have worked it out primarily because they have played together regularly with Saracens. 

Our premier pairing of James Ryan and Iain Henderson are two outstanding individual players in their own right.

Ryan has been a revelation. Henderson, for all his natural ability and aggression, hasn't imposed himself upon the position and his performances have been fitful. In order for Ireland to progress and go further than any of their predecessors, these two have to gel.

Their immediate opponents on Sunday, Grant Gilchrist and Jonny Gray, do complement each other and also have an extraordinary work ethic, but in terms of hard edge and real ability they are a good deal down on the Irish pairing.

It is true that Ryan has only been around for two seasons and maybe a little bit more familiarity with and game time with his Ulster compadre may set them up for a concerted run.

I think in my career I had about 10 partners, which is not conducive to consistency and knowing what you can rely on your partner to do and vice versa.

Henderson and Ryan are powerful carriers and it has been remarked upon how the pair of them seem to be able to take the ball that much further than the point of contact in the tackle.

The pair of them are very decent scrummagers and they also average in the high teens on the tackle count. You would wonder what everybody else is doing while they are making all these tackles.

For Ireland to be sure of victory on Sunday, they must point to their second-row, and if they perform as they should then Ireland will win.

Ireland's halves simply did not control games the way we know they can in this year's Six Nations and in the warm-up games there seemed to be an emphasis on not box-kicking and playing the chasing game. This trend, I think, will be reversed, particularly on Jacob Stockdale's wing.

I suspect Scotland's back-three of Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour and Sean Maitland will be well primed for what is coming.

On the other side of the line, Greig Laidlaw does all their kicking to chase. Finn Russell rarely kicks in the air and a lot of his kicking is used to keep defensive lines honest, and he has real skill in catching sides cold with these probing little grubbers that he has a PhD in.

If the ball is wet, it can be a liability trying to play football with it, and sometimes a dink over the top is worth its weight in gold.

I feel it is important to look back at Ireland's 22-13 victory in Murrayfield. 

It is generally accepted that the Scots just did not turn up on the day but that is a simplistic explanation which may hide the fact that they are not as good as they think they are.

The try count was 3-1 for Ireland and it could have been more.

The Scots will point to the fact that Hogg was taken out off the ball and had to retire early after 16 minutes, but Johnny Sexton followed him off the field seven minutes later and it was comforting that Carbery had a special day upon his arrival.

Ireland had Quinn Roux in the second-row that day - effectively 14 men - and yet never looked like losing.

The decision to play Jordan Larmour at full-back is interesting. When he played in Ireland's 28-17 victory over Argentina in November 2018, the canny Argentine out-half Nicolas Sanchez ruthlessly exposed him in the outfield.

The Scots will have a look at that video tape just to see whether they could make profit from it.

Larmour, though, has matured since then and is far more certain in the open field, and so Andrew Conway plays on the wing despite being more certain in the air.

If the weather is as bad as is predicted, both sets of players and their respective back-threes will have a huge influence on the game, and here Scotland have a slight advantage, and it might be Ireland's Achilles heel if this does become an aerial game in wet conditions.

The hope is, though, that the work will be done inside and Ireland's pack are able to subdue Scotland's 8.

This is what I think, and the bookies too. Ireland, but not by enough for comfortable viewing. 

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