Ireland extremely wary of Scotland

Paul O'Connell is known as the Colossus, says Greig Oliver, below
Paul O'Connell is known as the Colossus, says Greig Oliver, below
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Maybe it was the upset 29-23 win by Edinburgh over Munster at the start of this season’s Heineken European Cup.

Or perhaps the generally overlooked fact that Scotland have actually won three of the last five encounters against Ireland if you include a World Cup warm-up fixture.

But the strongly pronounced word from over the sea as another Six Nations Championship opener looms in Dublin this week is that Ireland are wary of their Caledonian visitors. Extremely wary.

That’s the view of a former Scottish international scrum half who, for the past seven years, has been working within the Irish rugby firmament.

Greig Oliver, capped three times between 1987 and 1991 from out of Hawick and who has climbed the coaching ladder from club level in his adopted country to assisting the Irish Wolfhounds side which defeated England Saxons in an A fixture last weekend, says: “There’s a new Irish coach in Joe Schmidt and he brings honesty and a lot of detail. I’ve been at the few training sessions he’s conducted and he challenges the players all the time.

“Ireland won’t be leaving any stone unturned because that isn’t Joe’s style.”

There is also the matter of New Zealander Schmidt shaking things up by including three possible new caps in an extended squad.

They are Leinster prop Martin Moore along with back row pair Robin Copeland (Cardiff) and Jordi Murphy (Leinster).

Additionally, Rhys Ruddock could be set to add to the single cap gained so far on tour in Australia four years ago.

All four were part of Oliver’s A team which defeated the Saxons and Oliver warns: “Rhys is a real hard-nosed individual, the son of Mike Ruddock who successfully coached the Welsh side a few years ago. He is just waiting for an opportunity but there is real depth in the Irish back row as there is in a lot of positions.

“Robin Copeland is returning next season to Munster, where I’m based, and I know first hand how pleased the province are to capture him while Jordi is a product of the under-20 system who has earned his chance.

“The one to really watch could be tight-head prop Martin Moore. He has come up through the club system and has been enjoying a very successful season putting pressure on Mike Ross at Leinster.”

And then there is Paul O’Connell...

The former Lions captain was out injured when Ireland were beaten 12-8 at Murrayfield last year and badly missed.

“Paul’s a colossus in Munster because of the standards he sets,” says Oliver. “I’ve been in the gym when Paul has been training and no matter what company he is keeping, whether it is academy youngsters or Lions, everyone picks up the aura from him.

“Having Paul back will certainly make a difference to Ireland in this year’s fixture but there are a lot of questions to be answered too. For example, Luke Fitzgerald hasn’t been able to play a lot of rugby recently because of injury so how will he slot back in?

“Jonny Sexton has gone off to play in France so will he be able to pick up where he left off with Conor Murray at half back and if Martin Moore comes in will he take that step up?

“There’s also the need for Ireland to move on from their last-gasp defeat by New Zealand last time and having spoken to the players there will be no lack of willingness to have a go rather than dwell on disappointment.

“That defeat in the final play has been attributed to player error and not taking the correct option under pressure, I know lessons have been learned from going so close against the All Blacks so I don’t expect any lingering disappointment.”

No matter who you speak to around the Six Nations scene there is a sense of intrigue mixed with admiration at how Scotland manage to remain competitive while operating just two professional teams in which places are sometimes allocated to non-Scots.

That feeling, one senses, is particularly rife in Ireland where a four-team system is well bedded in and from where Oliver is quick to praise the way rugby fights its corner in the face of competition from football and Gaelic Games.

“The big difference I have found since moving over is not the weather. Certainly not. But there is definitely a broader sporting outlook and rugby maybe benefits from that.

“It’s not cut and dried so far as Sunday’s outcome is concerned. Far from it and if Scotland are able to get quick possession than I see them being capable of doing damage for all that the likes of Tim Visser and Euan Murray being big misses.”

On Sunday proud Scot Oliver will be going through his customary tangle of emotions.

“It does get easier and I have compared notes with Richie Dixon, one of my old coaches who was in charge of Georgia against Scotland during the last World Cup. Singing Flower of Scotland then seeing the lads we work with go out to play Scotland is the hardest bit. We were both agreed on that. But there is a job to be done and I enjoy helping bring Irish players through the ranks and achieve potential.”