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Sunday, October 2, 2022

Ireland remain in hunt for Six Nations title but their fate rests in Paris | Six Nations 2022

It is that time of the Six Nations for mulling over what might have been and, for the lucky few, what could still follow. Coaches and players may insist on the sanctity of the “next match”, but the rest of us stand on the edge of the final round and work through the agonies of the past and future.

Scotland will be fairly tearing themselves apart over the review of yet another championship of disappointment, but it is true they have not had to wait till the last round for that. Even Ireland, though, might harbour a few regrets. They have it all to play for when Scotland visit Dublin, but languish for now in that purgatory of a fate surrendered to others.

Andy Farrell makes three changes to the side that claimed a bittersweet victory at Twickenham. Iain Henderson starts for the first time in the second row, although he played all but the first 82 seconds against England, after James Ryan’s withdrawal with a head injury from the incident that saw Charlie Ewels sent off.

Elsewhere, Jack Conan returns at No 8, with Caelan Doris reverting to flanker, meaning Peter O’Mahony steps back to the bench. These are simply adjustments from a position of strength, which highlight the depth of options available to Farrell.

Further evidence of this can be found in the three-quarters. Andrew Conway makes way for Mack Hansen because of a knee injury, but Hansen had been one of the stars of Ireland’s first three rounds, which also happened to be his first three Tests. Then Conway was given a run for the pivotal Twickenham showdown last week and emerged as one of Ireland’s best performers.

All of which begs the question, why is Ireland’s fate in the hands of others? To which one reply might be, the first five minutes of their 30-24 defeat in Paris. Or another might be, inaccuracy at crucial moments later in the game. It may be harsh to criticise Ireland unduly for falling victim to the same brilliant opening by the French that the other home nations have suffered so far, but – again like the others – they worked their way back into contention without quite finishing the job.

Farrell will be as frustrated as millions of others by the red cards that placed asterisks next to the two wins that followed. Red cards might not “ruin” matches, whatever that means, but they transform their dynamics, affecting the mindset of everyone, including the team who benefit, and artificially compromising the elemental question in sport of which team has played better.

Ireland’s wins in rounds three and four, against 13 and 14 men respectively, were of the job-done variety, but Farrell will have wanted tests more meaningful by which to gauge the reaction to defeat in Paris. Will Ireland have that opportunity in the final round against Scotland?

Scotland’s Blair Kinghorn in action against France in the 2022 Six Nations. He will start against Ireland at fly-half.
Scotland’s Blair Kinghorn in action against France in the 2022 Six Nations. He will start against Ireland at fly-half. Photograph: Russell Cheyne/Reuters

Assuming no further red cards, which is a dangerous presumption these days, a casual observer could be forgiven for thinking not. The cold, hard facts show Scotland have not won in Dublin since 2010. And that was at Croke Park. They have not won at Lansdowne Road since 1998. In the 11 Six Nations encounters since 2010, Scotland have won twice, the last five years ago.

There is something about the meaty substance of recent Ireland teams that Scotland do not respond well to, even when they are not coping with the crushing disappointment of another championship gone by. Their headline selection for this one is that of Blair Kinghorn at fly-half. This is accommodated by the dropping of Finn Russell.

Gregor Townsend is at pains to underplay the significance of the selection, but it is impossible not to speculate whether this marks a change in policy, an attempt to break from the most recent characterisation of Scotland as brilliant but brittle. Russell has time yet to make the transition from genius fly-half into a match-shaping one, which some greats achieve in their later years.

He and Townsend, who managed that metamorphosis himself, have not always seen eye to eye. Now Scotland’s coach turns to the elegant Kinghorn, more usually a full-back or winger in the past. There is something about him of Stephen Larkham, another who made that transition, albeit from the position of brilliant full-back.

Whether Scotland start to make the shift to a consistently winning team in Dublin this weekend feels unlikely. If Ireland win, it would be over to Paris, where defeat for France would see Farrell’s side crowned champions.

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