Analysis: Ireland face test of character in Edinburgh

It is a challenge that Joe Schmidt would certainly rather his players didn’t have to rise to but the Ireland coach will now get to see a true examination of his team’s character in how they bounce back from defeat.

It is a challenge that Joe Schmidt would certainly rather his players didn’t have to rise to but the Ireland coach will now get to see a true examination of his team’s character in how they bounce back from defeat.

Losing rugby games has been an inconvenience that hasn’t befallen Ireland in a while – they suffered just a solitary defeat away to Australia in 2018, which was quickly avenged twice over, and their last Championship loss was in March 2017.

For context, last Saturday’s 32-20 defeat to England in Round 1 of the 2019 Guinness Six Nations was the first time Andrew Porter and John Cooney have lost on the international stage, and just the second time for Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale, James Ryan, Joey Carbery and Jordan Larmour.

It could serve as a something of a reality check for the Irish dressing room but could also be the making of Schmidt’s men as they travel to Edinburgh to take on Scotland on Saturday.

“They probably haven’t had the adversity that I as a coach, along with Joe and a lot of the other players, have been through before. It does build a bit of resilience,” mused scrum coach Greg Feek this week.

“Everyone is quite hard on themselves in terms of losses as well. We all put our hands up and say ‘we didn’t do this right or that right’.

“Again, you don’t survive in this environment if you can’t handle the pressure. You’ve almost got to look at it, hold on to it and run with it.

An opening-weekend defeat, to an England side that have won two of the last three Championships, is no reason to panic but a brutally physical contest at the Aviva Stadium has left its scars.

Garry Ringrose’s hamstring gave way, forcing him off in the second half, as did Devin Toner’s ankle, while CJ Stander’s fractured eye sockets and cheekbone makes it three of Round 1’s starters ruled out of the Scotland clash through injury.

Ringrose’s injury means Robbie Henshaw is likely to return to outside centre – in truth, perhaps not the worst outcome after looking less comfortable at full-back, a position he hadn’t played at international level since his Ireland debut in 2013.

That should free up Rob Kearney to return to the No.15 jersey – although Schmidt could opt for Leinster flyer Jordan Larmour there instead – after the veteran “ran out time” to prove his fitness ahead of the England match, according to his coach.

Kearney’s stability under the high ball and 90 Test caps of experience at full-back will prove invaluable, with Scotland surely prepared to probe the slight frailties Ireland showed in Dublin.

Marauding No.8 Stander’s injuries – which will also see him miss the Italy match in Round 3 – are undoubtedly a blow, with Sean O’Brien and Jack Conan the most likely replacements in the back row.

Depending how much Schmidt decides to switch things up, they may both come into the starting XV with Josh van der Flier a possibility to drop out.

Meanwhile, Toner’s ankle issue only exacerbates the situation at lock – where Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson are already out – and will be a test of the much-vaunted depth Ireland have at the position.

Quinn Roux wasn’t even in Schmidt’s initial 38-man selection for the Guinness Six Nations last month but the Connacht man now looks favourite to start alongside James Ryan in the second row.

Ultan Dillane is another option but Feek sounded quietly optimistic about the prospect of Roux moving into the starting XV at BT Murrayfield.

“Quinn has really stepped up in terms of calling the lineouts, leading the team and on the field, he’s slotting in when he’s had to pretty well,” said the scrum coach.

“Quinn did really well at the weekend, he came on and put a couple of big hits in. He’s been leading the lineout in Connacht this year, he’s really progressed there and matured as a player.

“He’s good in the scrum and mauling. As a tight forward he ticks a lot of the boxes. Luckily for us, we have good depth there at the moment.”

The incredible depth created has arguably been Schmidt’s most important impact during his time as Ireland coach and should stand them in good stead for a must-win encounter with Scotland.

The Scots are riding high – top of the Guinness Six Nations table after a bonus-point win over Italy and with an optimism surrounding the squad created by finishing third in last year’s Championship.

Ireland may have won five of the most recent six matches between the sides but a 27-22 triumph for the Scots when the teams last met at BT Murrayfield in 2017 is further cause for optimism.

Despite the contrasting Round 1 fortunes, Ireland may still head to Edinburgh as slight favourite but in what promises to be a scintillating match-up, Scotland coach Gregor Townsend believes the visitors have few flaws.

“It’s a real challenge for us,” said Townsend. “Ireland will test us in every area.

“They’ve got an excellent set-piece, scrum, lineout maul and they do special plays which seem to work find where the defence might be vulnerable in first, second, third, fourth phase so we’ll need to be really switched on defensively – they’re the best team in the world in contact.

“They’ve developed a real line speed and aggression in defence and they still compete for ball.

“They are the complete package. We know we’ll have to be at our very best.

“We’re looking forward to welcoming Ireland here – we’ve got to play the best game we’ve played in the last few years to beat them.”