5 talking points ahead of Ireland's Six Nations clash with Scotland
The penultimate peril.
What a joy this Six Nations has been so far. After three rounds of games, Joe Schmidt’s men are the only unbeaten side left in the tournament.
The words ‘Grand Slam’ are now on most people's lips and you’d be forgiven for being one of them. Facing off against England on Paddy's Day in the decider is a prospect that seems too good to be true.
That might well prove to be the case. There's still the small matter of Scotland to get through next weekend.
Coming off a convincing win over England in the previous round, the Scots look to be a renewed force. And let's not forget that they beat us last year.
What makes the tournament so enthralling is the many variables that have to go in one team's favour in order to win it outright.
Who starts at outside centre?
Clip via Six Nations Rugby
The number 13 is starting to look pretty unlucky for Ireland, with two players succumbing to season-ending injuries while in possession of the jersey.
Although it's worth remembering the performances of both Robbie Henshaw and Chris Farrell while playing in the position. The former was touching down his second try of the game when he injured himself against Italy. The latter was awarded man of the match after gobbling up Welsh players in last week’s game.
It seems like a no-brainer as to who gets the nod against Scotland. Garry Ringrose started all five of last year's games and would have started in France had he not been injured. By the time the Scots rock up to the Aviva, the Leinsterman will have had some game time under his belt for the province and be rearing to go.
The bizarre suggestion has been floated of starting either Joey Carbery or Sexton at 12 and moving Bundi Aki to outside centre. Maybe there's a time for that level of experimentation, but two games away from a Grand Slam is not it.
Ulster's Stuart McCloskey is another option but considering Ringrose's experience, if he's fit, he starts.
Can Scotland win away from home?
Clip via Six Nations Rugby
Scotland looked formidable against England, they also played very well against France before that. Both of those games were in Edinburgh. When they were last tasked with playing away from home, they were bashed off the park by Wales, losing by 27 points in the first game of this year's tournament.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t be concerned. Scotland have a history of shitting on our parade. Their last win in Dublin came in 2010, Ireland’s farewell game in Croke Park and a Triple Crown decider. They walked away with a narrow 20-23 win. We overlook Scotland at our peril.
Where is Joey Carbery’s game time going to come from?
If nothing else, the 2018 Six Nations has been a huge success when it comes to building strength in depth in the squad. Everyone’s hearts sank when Tadhg Furlong and Henshaw made their way off the pitch in various states of injury in the game against Italy.
By the final whistle last weekend, their absence was barely noticed, such were the performances of Andrew Porter and Chris Farrell in their place.
For maybe the first time in recent memory, there are one or two players in the wings that are genuinely as good as their counterpart on the pitch. Except in one position.
Johnny Sexton is the best out-half in the world, and playing some of the best rugby of his career. We all love him, not least because of a certain moment that rescued our championship before we’d even got started.
Clip via Kevin O’Hara
Joey Carbery has been an incredibly exciting prospect ever since he burst onto the scene last season. Since then, the New Zealand-born back has been a victim of his own versatility. He’s played the vast majority of his game time this year at fullback, as Ross Byrne has cemented himself as Sexton’s understudy in blue.
No one doubts the talent of Carbery, but how practical is it for your back up playmaker to not be playing regular rugby in that position?
Come the end of the Six Nations, Carbery could find himself in an even more precarious place in Leinster. He may have fallen to third choice fullback behind Rob Kearney and Jordan Larmour, and third choice at 10 behind Sexton and Byrne.
Carbery will probably get another 15 to 20 minutes against Scotland if the game is already won or if, heaven forbid, something happens to Sexton. But is that really enough?
As it stands, if Sexton is forced off even earlier in a game of huge importance, Ireland's hopes of winning decrease significantly.
He needs game time in order to justify his position on the bench ahead of players like Ian Keatley and Ross Byrne, regardless of his superior talent.
Where can Ireland improve?
Clip via Six Nations Rugby
Joe Schmidt was noticeably miffed in his post-match interviews following the win against Wales. Yes, they'd won by 10 points, but they were a pass away from losing in the dying seconds. It shouldn't have been that close.
While no one doubted the mental fortitude of the team after the first match against France, they did seem to lack a cutting edge. With that in mind, it was a pleasure to watch the same team run in five tries against the Welsh.
Nevertheless, it must have been worrying for Schmidt to see his team concede so much whenever Warren Gatland's men decided to spread the ball out wide. They looked vulnerable and it almost cost them the game.
If the team can manage to plug those holes while maintaining the attacking threat, they have the potential to roll over the Scots.
Can Ireland win the Six Nations with a game to spare?
Clip via mountnugent1949
Whether Ireland beat Scotland by a whisker or an absolute rout, England won't be able to catch up if they can't match that result. So if Schmidt’s side get a bonus point win, Eddie Jones’ men must do the same to remain in contention.
If things go Ireland’s way, they could be in a unique position. Winning the tournament outright with another round of games still to come.
There are a couple of reasons to feel optimistic about this sequence of events playing out.
Firstly, as we’ve already established, while Scotland have the potential to spoil the party, Ireland remain firm favourites.
Secondly, England have to go to Paris. Following their defeat to the Scots, this side looks as mortal as they ever have under Eddie Jones.
England should learn from Ireland's narrow win. Although France are at a low point in their history, they still remain incredibly difficult to break down at home.
The idea of Ireland heading Twickenham with the title already in the bag, on the hunt for the Grand Slam is very appealing indeed.