If you’re chasing a few points to secure a Grand Slam no one predicted when the six nations made it to the starting gate, then a home game against a useless Scotland is as good as it gets.
or is it a Scottish side for whom the bulk gets regular playing time in the SRU’s Super Six competition – which should surely be their bread and butter. Leaner rations seem certain today, despite having sons of famous fathers, Gregor Townsend and Bryan Redpath, at fullback.
It has already been a standout campaign for Richie Murphy’s side. During their tour of the country playing development sides at Munster and Leinster, the results did not prompt the bookmakers to reduce the chances of this type of finish.
A narrow win at Munster was followed by a narrow defeat at Leinster. Admittedly, no one follows the score too closely during these warm-ups, but they are usually a handy guide to how the league unfolds for Ireland. The words dream and team were usually not in the same sentence.
Yet here we are with the scalps of France and England dangling from the bedpost. Along the way, the journey has been shaped by key influencers, for whom the next step is as interesting as how this afternoon unfolded.
Murphy will be the first to recognize how lucky he is to have his team’s backbone nearly intact in the four games so far. Full-back Patrick Campbell, who looked so comfortable for Munster in the Heineken Champions Cup against Wasps before Christmas, has always been there. Half-backs Charlie Tector and Matthew Devine were present throughout, with Devine coming off the bench successfully in France. Ulster hooker Richie McCormick and Leinster number eight James Culhane also started the four.
Add to that key artists like Jack Boyle, UCD second lines Conor O’Tighearnaigh and Mark Morrissey and Ulster flanker Reuben Crothers, and this cast of usual suspects seems to have been together for years.
It helped that Wales’ worst team in living memory found themselves on opening night and were dismembered. The difference in level required from there to Aix-en-Province was enormous. It took a last-minute try from Ben Brownlee to win this match against France, but despite the timing, it wasn’t a steal.
The quality of the performance against England, winners of the Grand Slams last season, has gone up a notch, offering Murphy a chance to make Ireland the most competitive nation of the last five seasons: two Grand Slams and top of the table with three wins out of three in 2019 when the competition was cut short.
This level of performance of a minnow compared to the big fish of England and France is well above expectations. Murphy and his coaching staff deserve credit for coming up with a plan the players were happy to follow – which they closely followed.
Which brings us to the next step. Without the Under-20 World Cup this year, there will instead be a summer tournament, possibly in South Africa, for the six nations plus a few others.
Thereafter, it is a question of bringing as many as possible into the pro game. Boyle has obvious potential if his frame allows for the extra bulk he will need, and Culhane has proven to be a remarkably combative number eight despite not being a giant. McCormick also seems to have what it takes.
Scrum-half Devine has proven to have an edge near the line but the quality of his passes en route is ordinary. It won’t be much of an inconvenience this afternoon, but that’s not where the trip is supposed to end.
Ireland: P Campbell; A King, J Postletwaite, B Carson, F Gibbons; C Tector, M Devine; J Boyle, J McCormick, R McGuire, C O’Tighearnaigh, M Morrissey, L McLoughlin, J Culhane, R Crothers. Subs: J Hanlon, O Michel, S Wilson, A McNamee, D Mangan, E Coughlan, T Butler, C Mullins.
Scotland: R McClintock; McKnight R, Munn D, Stirrat A, Evans B; C Townsend, M Redpath; M Jones, M Deehan, R Tait, M Williamson, Matthew Deehan, R Tait, T Brown. Subs: D Hood, A Rogers, C Bowker, I Hill, R Gordon, J Cape, T Glendinning, K Clark.
Referee: F Vedovelli (Italy).