A hat-trick on Saturday. Headlines galore on Sunday. Named player of the round on Wednesday. Dropped on Thursday.
Grand Slam winners. Conquerors of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. One defeat in 19 Tests. Walloped in their own back yard, bullied and bludgeoned by a towering foe.
How callous elite sport can be. How quickly it can smite the rampant.
Blair Kinghorn has done absolutely nothing to relinquish his place in the Scotland XV – in fact, short of striking oil in the North Sea, leading the national football team to the World Cup finals or negotiating a satisfactory Brexit deal, he has done pretty much everything in his power to keep the number 11 jersey he wore with such distinction against Italy.
Kinghorn ran 89m, made four clean breaks, beat six defenders, missed none of his 12 attempted tackles and scored his country’s first championship treble for 30 years, but the gangling 22-year-old finds himself benched nonetheless for the visit of Ireland.
It may look spectacularly cruel but in reality, Gregor Townsend’s decision to replace Kinghorn with Sean Maitland, who has recovered from a hamstring injury, on the wing is eminently sensible.
It isn’t the dull choice, or even the “safe” one – Kinghorn has produced firecracker moments this season but Maitland too has scored six tries in his last eight Scotland starts. He is a fantastic defender, a trophy-winner with Saracens and Glasgow and he has a mountain of experience at the highest level.
Kinghorn, after all, is a full-back first and a wing second. He will bring all of his explosiveness and pace from the bench but with the mighty Irish in town, Scotland’s established and effective Maitland-Stuart Hogg-Tommy Seymour back-three axis was always going to be Townsend’s preference.
This is a monumental Test for a Scottish team itching to take the next step on their riveting upwards journey and a wonderful Ireland side reeling from their physical and tactical savaging at the hands of England. You don’t see CJ Stander, Peter O’Mahony, Tadgh Furlong and their pals in reverse gear very often but Eddie Jones and his chariot ran roughshod over the Irish juggernaut.
That was only Ireland’s second loss in 20 Tests, a magnificent period in which they won a Grand Slam, a Test series in Australia, and beat South Africa and New Zealand. They are missing three injured Lions yet still name nine in their line-up, as well as six European champions.
Between them, Cian Healy and Rory Best have as many caps (199) as the entire Scottish pack. Healy alone has 11 trophies to his name with Leinster and Ireland. This is a squad full of winners nursing the unfamiliar ache of defeat, a pain all the more chastening because of the team that inflicted it.
A fascinating battle between two of world rugby’s most canny and admired minds.
Townsend and Joe Schmidt have only met once as international head coaches, in last year’s championship when Ireland powered to a 28-8 victory and Scotland bombed two-on-ones like panicky under-14’s. With only 38% of the possession, Scotland made eight line-breaks. That was encouraging. The problem they had was finishing them. Ireland were physically dominant and motoring away to the Grand Slam.
Schmidt’s Ireland typically employ a more structured and deliberate game than the Scottish approach of speed, off-loading and scything strike plays. Townsend’s style is a touch unconventional in Test rugby but it can be devastating.
Schmidt will be well prepared for what is coming his way, swatting aside suggestions that his team were “one-dimensional” or lacking a strategy varied enough to hurt the English.
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Watch: Murray and Schmidt speak ahead of Scotland Test
You fancy Ireland will try and bludgeon Scotland up front, dominate the set-piece and starve them of the quick ball that allows their strike runners to flourish.
Josh Strauss, starting this week at number eight, gives Scotland their biggest ball-carrying weapon but even with him in the van, they don’t really have the beef to monster Ireland as England did.
Head-to-heads & key battlegrounds
Finn Russell versus Johnny Sexton is this game in microcosm and the most enthralling of the individual duels in prospect – Scotland’s rapscallion conductor against the world player of the year.
Russell was majestic against Italy, a mesmerising snake-charmer with the ball who played a crucial role in all five Scottish tries. What struck you the most was his decision-making – or more accurately, his ability to identify and execute the correct option in the blink of an eye, as if operating with a few seconds more than everybody else.
Russell will be given an immeasurably harder time by Ireland than anything Italy’s malleable defence could lob in his path. He is delivering some blockbuster rugby at Racing 92 and so far, the maddening element of his carefree spirit has been kept locked away. There is always the worry that it could re-emerge in the face of vicious Irish pressure.
With Sexton, you know what you get – devastating intensity, clarity of thought and of deed and a snarling figurehead who rouses the men around him to greater heights. A supreme kicking game, arcing wrap-around’s and snapped pop passes putting runners through gaps that have been cleverly teased open.
All of that was rendered largely impotent by England. It was striking and, for the Irish, unsettling to see their fulcrum’s influence so diminished. Of all Ireland’s players, Sexton will be hungriest to bite back.
In the scrummage, Allan Dell, a highly mobile but relatively light prop, is tasked with subduing the gigantic Furlong. Ireland have lost Stander to injury but still have a battery of punishing carriers and their colossus Sean O’Brien starts after returning from a broken arm, the latest in a dreadful gamut of injuries.
Scotland are missing Hamish Watson and John Barclay, huge components of their back-row, and crucial to their quest for the quick ball they use to thrive. Jamie Ritchie, Ryan Wilson and Strauss’ tussle with O’Mahony, O’Brien and Jack Conan will be pivotal.
This is must-win time for Ireland, no doubt. Falling so emphatically to England was embarrassing.
Back-to-back losses would strike a catastrophic blow to both their title chances and their momentum. Much would be written about peaking too soon with the World Cup down the tracks.
If it is win-or-bust for Ireland, the Scots ought to be viewing this Test in a similar context. They have now won seven successive championship matches at home, including a victory over Ireland two years ago, but Saturday’s opponents are better than anything they’ve beaten in that stretch. If they are serious about smithereening the status quo, about titles and glory, Scotland need to keep decking the big boys.
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