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Why Ireland's World Cup clash with Scotland will be a world away from Six Nations meetings


Play it again: Ulsterman Jacob Stockdale races in for a try in Ireland’s 22-13 win over Scotland, Sunday’s opening World Cup opponents, at Murrayfield in February in Six Nations
Play it again: Ulsterman Jacob Stockdale races in for a try in Ireland’s 22-13 win over Scotland, Sunday’s opening World Cup opponents, at Murrayfield in February in Six Nations
Paddy Johns
Jonathan Bradley

Jonathan Bradley

As Paddy Johns remembers it, Neil Francis' smirking comment to Hemi Taylor was a little bit of Five Nations rivalry transplanted straight into the middle of Johannesburg.

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Given Gary Halpin's two-finger salute against the All Blacks previously in the tournament, perhaps Ireland had no leg to stand on when it came to over-celebrating in defeat, but as the Wales flanker crashed over in the last minute to at least bring his side to within one score in the crucial 1995 World Cup pool match, Johns overheard Francis reminding Taylor with a grin that his next act would still be to pack his bags for the flight home.

If playing a side annually doesn't quite breed contempt, it remains at least fertile ground for a quip or two.

It seems, however, that the experience of Six Nations battles count for little come the greatest stage of them all.

When Ireland take on Scotland in Yokohama on Sunday, the 136th meeting between the pair and the first on neutral soil, it'll feel a very different battle to the one fought in Dublin or Edinburgh every spring for the Centenary Quaich.

"The World Cup is just totally different, even when you're playing a 'local rival', as it were," says Johns, who was one of Ireland's better performers in that 24-23 win over Wales which had essentially taken on the form of a quarter-final play-off.

"It's still your country against their country and you're still very aware that you're representing a lot of people and it's a big responsibility, but the World Cup is unique.

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"It's like the Olympics for athletes, every nation has an interest. Everyone is watching all the matches, you've got that bigger audience and you're aware of it. Every player would have that in their head," adds Johns.

"Besides, when we played Wales that day it was 25 degrees and sunny... I don't think anyone would say it had the feel of a Six Nations game."

Sunday will be the 16th time an all-Five or Six Nations clash has taken place in the pool stages of the global gathering, and past results indicate that recent history has less bearing than one might think.

It's not what Joe Schmidt would want to hear given his team have triumphed in five of the last six against Gregor Townsend's side in the northern hemisphere's showpiece tournament, but on no less than five occasions sides have overturned a defeat earlier in the year to get the better of things at the World Cup.

More surprisingly still, four of those teams have done so having lost at home in the championship to the same opposition in the months prior, just as Scotland did against Ireland at Murrayfield back in February. While theoretically it would be presumed that the familiarity of the dynamic should change the game, former Ireland flanker Chris Henry believes Schmidt's time in Irish rugby has ensured that won't necessarily be so.

"At the last World Cup I remember we were preparing to play Romania and Joe had us convinced that they were world-beaters," says the Ulsterman who won the last five of his 24 caps at the 2015 World Cup, two of them against Italy and France.

"We'd done so much analysis on their strengths that it'd genuinely have scared you, and when Joe rhymes off the opposition team like he does, that's no act. He knows everything about them and expects you to do so as well.

"Maybe before you'd have had a better idea in an all-Six Nations tie, but now, no matter who it is, you're expected to already know which way the prop steps, which foot the half-back prefers to kick off.

"I suppose the other difference too is what's at stake.

"Obviously you give everything in every Test match, especially the Six Nations, but four years ago when we played France, we knew what was riding on that game, we thought that was going to shape our World Cup and what had been worked on for the past four years."

Ireland are likely thinking the same this weekend.

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