This weekend sees Ireland return to Paris and the scene of their gripping victory over South Africa. Familiar opponents Scotland stand between them and a place in the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals.
Assistant coach Mike Catt says it has been ‘pretty easy’ for the Ireland squad to park the South Africa game, drawing on their experience of the New Zealand series and this year’s Grand Slam when they built winning momentum and backed up big performances.
The pressure may be on to deliver the required result at the Stade de France, but Andy Farrell’s men would have been facing this quarter-final shootout with Scotland anyway, no matter how they fared against the Springboks just under a fortnight ago.
“It’s another Six Nations game, it’s another series game down in New Zealand, it’s one that when you put on an Ireland shirt you want to win, and you’d do anything to put in the best performance that you can put in. It’s no different now,” insisted Catt.
“We’ve put ourselves in those situations before and produced the same again, and that’s what we need to do. We need to be accurate in certain things, but keep doing what we’re doing and see where our potential can take us.”
Ireland come into the final round of the pool stages as the second leading points scorers (154) and third top try scorers (21). New Zealand’s hammering of Italy has taken them to 180 points and 27 tries, while South Africa have completed their pool campaign with a haul of 22 tries.
For attack specialist Catt, he has been pleased with some of Ireland’s execution so far but knows they can take it up another few notches on Saturday. They will likely have to, given Scotland have missed the second fewest tackles per game (14.7) for the joint-best tackle success rate of 89%.
Asked about the form of the Irish attack during their first three pool matches, he said: “When we’ve been really accurate, we’ve been able to execute things properly. I think our work-rate has been pretty special in terms of putting ourselves in good positions to be able to see the picture and make the right decisions.
“Also, being direct and aggressive in our carries too. I think that’s been one of the big things. Guys like Bundee (Aki), Caelan Doris, those guys are giving us that front foot ball which is easier to play off. I think ultimately it’s down to our work-rate and our fitness.”
All 33 squad members were out training at Tours’ Complexe de la Chambrerie on Tuesday, including James Ryan who has some strapping on his left hand and wrist following the Springboks encounter.
“James is fine, he has trained fully with us this morning,” explained Catt. “We are happy with how he has progressed. He has just got a knock on his hand so he has come out of that fine.”
Given how Scotland have worked their way back into contention after a losing start against the ‘Boks, the former England international says Ireland will be have to be on their mettle to deal with their attacking threats.
Chief amongst them is lightning-quick winger Darcy Graham, the World Cup’s joint-top try scorer with five so far. He has profited from the fact that Scotland are playing with the most width in their attack, across all four pools.
Gregor Townsend’s charges have the highest percentage of their attacks more than 30 metres from the previous breakdown (17%), then the second-most between 10 and 30 metres (51%), and the lowest percentage within 10 metres out of the previous breakdown (32%).
It’s exciting. I think the way Scotland play and the way we play, we are both attacking teams and we love playing with ball in hand.
“I think if you go back to the Six Nations game (last March), Scotland were very good against us and probably came out of that wishing they got a little bit more.
“We understand what they are capable of doing, there is huge respect there. On our guys, we have a few who are on top of their game at the moment. Bundee is on a great run so let’s hope we can continue to do that. It’s going to be a great clash.”
Catt added: “Finn Russell is going to pull a trick out of the hat every game that he plays, (it’s) just making sure we stay connected. We understand what he is capable of doing but it’s not just him.
“You have Darcy Graham, Duhan van der Merwe, they have threats everywhere. (Blair) Kinghorn is a fantastic player at 15 as well. It’s making sure you understand the whole package. Finn might orchestrate it all but there are some dangerous runners around him who help him out.”
The 2003 Rugby World Cup winner joined the Ireland coaching team after the 2019 World Cup. Since then Farrell’s side have beaten Scotland five times in as many fixtures, with Ireland last losing to Scotland at Murrayfield at the start of the 2017 Six Nations.
Catt played down Ireland’s eight-match winning streak against the Scots and its significance this week, instead focusing on the here and now and what they need to do to secure their pass to the knockout rounds.
“It’s not about being eight (in a row), it’s the next game, that they’re pulling on an Irish shirt and looking to put in a performance that the nation is going to be proud of and we are going to be proud of too.
“I think if we can do that then there’s a good chance that the game might go our way. So, history is history. It doesn’t come into it at all, from our point of view.
“We’ve prepared well for this game, we’ve had a weekend off on the back of that South Africa game and we need to chase our potential. We need to make sure we go up another level to what we were last time out.”