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Six Nations: Focused Ireland intent on sealing the deal in style

Scotland come in quest of a Triple Crown but form lines suggest Farrell’s men retain a decisive edge over the visitors

Ireland v Scotland, Aviva Stadium. Kick-off: 4.45pm. On TV: Live on Virgin Media TV

This is not how either side would have ideally imagined this evening’s finale coming to pass.

Both would have dreamed of it being the final leg of a shot at the Grand Slam and, accordingly, they each have what-might-have-been narratives from the 2024 Guinness Six Nations, up to and including decidedly deflating defeats just a week ago.

Yet this is still a huge match, and a landmark game for both teams.

For Peter O’Mahony’s team it is still a tilt at becoming only the third Irish team ever to retain the championship, thus reaffirming their status as the country’s best team, whereas defeat, even if it came with an anticlimactic trophy presentation, would damage the work of the last few years in winning 20 out of 22 Test matches.

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At the very least, had Scotland beaten France or Italy they would merely require a win to secure their first title since the last Five Nations Championship in 1999. Even so, there is the prize of a first Triple Crown since 1990 and the carrot of their highest-placed finish since 1999, or alternatively finishing with more losses than wins and in fourth, or potentially, fifth place.

Whatever way you look at this one, there are plenty of carrots and sticks, and by the way they don’t like each other.

Viewed in this light, so much of this game would appear to hinge on the mentality of both teams, and without being disrespectful to Scotland, all the more so with regard to this Irish team.

Ireland vs Scotland - Grudge match or rivalry?

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They’ve had a week to absorb the disappointment of missing out on a shot at a historic second Grand Slam in succession and appreciate that there is still the next best prize, and a huge prize, at stake this evening.

This game has slightly uncanny echoes of the 2010 campaign, when Ireland were defending Grand Slam champions, but lost 33-10 in Paris in round two and after beating England away and Wales at home, were perhaps a tad complacent when hosting Scotland in the team’s final game at Croke Park with a Triple Crown on the line.

In any event, after an early Brian O’Driscoll try, a somewhat wildly ambitious brand of rugby led to a plethora of handling errors and turnovers. Jonathan Kaplan did not have a good game and a late Dan Parks penalty gave Scotland a 23-20 win.

There are reasons for Ireland why Ireland could be complacent. Their 36-14 win at the Stade de France in their World Cup pool finale was Ireland’s ninth consecutive victory over Scotland.

Perhaps, coupled with the provinces’ supremacy over the two Scottish regions, this partly explains the sometimes feisty meetings between the two teams which dates back at least to Glasgow targeting Conor Murray in a 2017 Champions Cup clash,

As Jean Kleyn confirmed from the confines of the Springboks’ World Cup camp in the build up to that final pool game, “there’s a little bit of animosity between the Irish and the Scots. It’s very much magnified at international level. Everything’s a little bit closer to the bone and everything’s a little bit more real”.

The Netflix documentary added to this impression when it showed Gregor Townsend informing his team that the Irish players and media didn’t respect the Scots, while the since retired Stuart Hogg said: ‘We owe these f*****s one”.

That was before last season’s win in Murrayfield, and the apparent sledging and ill-feeling was evident in Ireland’s bloodless coup in Paris. Speaking after what is likely to be his last Captain’s Run press conference, Peter O’Mahony played down this apparent antipathy in classic style.

“Well look, I think it’s a competitive game and both teams always get stuck in and that’s what you want, isn’t it? You want both teams flat out. And we’re not playing tennis or golf, you know what I mean? It’s a physical game, and you’ve got to get stuck in and you’ve got to be on the edge, and that’s rugby, like.”

As for Finn Russell and Scotland, he must have thought that after Johnny Sexton, Owen Farrell and Dan Biggar rode off into the sunset, this would be his and their year. Russell is a brilliantly creative player, all the more so off quick ball, but Ireland have generally denied him this oxygen, and big unit though Stafford McDowall is, he has neither the experience nor footwork of Sione Tuipulotu.

Recent history has also demonstrated that Ireland have the big carrying firepower in Dan Sheehan, Caelan Doris and co. as well as off the bench in Ronan Kelleher, Jack Conan and co, to penetrate Scotland’s defence and put them on the back foot.

Having leaked two tries to kicks in behind to empty grass in Rome last week, it’s hard to envisage Scotland leaving the back door open again with two wide sweepers and no one ‘fullback’ per se. But this could leave them more exposed in the front line or on the edges, and Ireland have the ballast and smarts to locate the spaces.

Scotland are the best team in the tournament at striking stealthily, off turnovers, in transition or off set-pieces, but if Ireland again edge the collisions and the possession, and their set pieces are secure, then the domino effect is that they will impose their work-rate off the ball, short-passing game and footwork in a manner not seen a week ago.

Putting back-to-back Grand Slams in perspective, O’Mahony said: “You’ve got to win 10 championship games in a row, win five away from home. It’s unbelievably difficult to win a game away from home in this championship, if you look at the stats across the board. So, it’s everything to us – another championship.

“It’s probably a manner of the Irish psyche, ‘Jesus, another championship’, you know what I mean? When all of a sudden a few years ago you’d have taken your arm and your leg off for one. We’re still in the same boat, it matters a massive amount to us. It’s what we’re here for, that’s the be all and end all of it, we’re here to win a championship for our country and it couldn’t mean any more to us.”

It’s also set up for the crowd to be a proper part of an Irish game in this championship, and if it transpires to be O’Mahony’s last game for Ireland as well, then there would be no more fitting way to bow out than by lifting the trophy.

Ireland: Hugo Keenan (Leinster/UCD); Calvin Nash (Munster/Young Munster), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster/Buccaneers), Bundee Aki (Connacht/Galwegians), James Lowe (Leinster); Jack Crowley (Munster/Cork Constittuion), Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster); Andrew Porter (Leinster/UCD), Dan Sheehan (Leinster/Lansdowne), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster/Clontarf); Joe McCarthy (Leinster/Dublin University), Tadhg Beirne (Munster/Lansdowne); Peter O’Mahony (Munster/Cork Constitution, captain), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Caelan Doris (Leinster/St Mary’s College). Replacements: Rónan Kelleher (Leinster/Lansdowne), Cian Healy (Leinster/Clontarf), Finlay Bealham (Connacht/Buccaneers), Ryan Baird (Leinster/Dublin University), Jack Conan (Leinster/Old Belvedere), Conor Murray (Munster/Garryowen), Harry Byrne (Leinster/UCD), Garry Ringrose (Leinster/UCD).

Scotland: Blair Kinghorn (Toulouse); Kyle Steyn (Glasgow Warriors), Huw Jones (Glasgow Warriors), Stafford McDowall (Glasgow Warriors), Duhan van der Merwe (Edinburgh Rugby), Finn Russell (Bath Rugby, co-capt), Ben White (Toulon) Pierre Schoeman (Edinburgh Rugby), George Turner (Glasgow Warriors), Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors), Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh Rugby), Scott Cummings (Glasgow Warriors), Andy Christie (Saracens), Rory Darge (Glasgow Warriors, co-capt), Jack Dempsey (Glasgow Warriors). Replacements: Ewan Ashman (Edinburgh Rugby), Rory Sutherland (Oyonnax), Elliot Millar-Mills (Northampton Saints), Sam Skinner (Edinburgh Rugby), Matt Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors), George Horne (Glasgow Warriors), Cameron Redpath (Bath Rugby), Kyle Rowe (Glasgow Warriors)

Referee: Matthew Carley (ENG).

Overall head-to-head: Played 141. Ireland 70 wins, Scotland 66 wins, Draws 5.

Betting (Paddy Power): 1/12 Ireland, 35/1 Draw, 15/2 Scotland. Handicap odds (Scotland +15pts) Evens Ireland, 16/1 Draw, Evens Scotland.

Forecast: Ireland to win.

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