big-match verdict | 

Mick Galwey: Johnny Sexton can lead Ireland to Triple Crown and set up Grand Slam game

Scotland pose huge threat but return of big guns gives us edge in Murrayfield

Johnny Sexton is back for Ireland and will pull the strings in Murrayfield. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

Bundee Aki was exposed at times against Italy. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

The return of Tadhg Furlong is a big boost for Ireland. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

2 March 2023; Jamison Gibson-Park, right, and Conor Murray during an Ireland Rugby open training session at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 03: Finn Russell juggles rugby balls during the Scotland captain's run at Twickenham Stadium on February 03, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)© Getty Images

19 November 2022; Bundee Aki of Ireland during the Bank of Ireland Nations Series match between Ireland and Australia at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

Mick GalweySunday World

So here we go. Today Ireland’s rugby heroes seek to step around a great big banana skin on the way to the Six Nations Grand Slam dream of 2023.

And that, my friends, is what the Jocks most certainly are.

If we can win today, next weekend will take care of itself. We play England, on St Patrick’s weekend, with everything to play for, including the chance to win a Grand Slam in Dublin for the first time ever.

But first we have to get past Gregor Townsend’s Scotland.

They have been revived this season. Their entertaining and hugely committed and organised style of playing the game has contributed hugely to what has been a great Six Nations tournament – no matter what happens on the last two weekends.

Scotland have Finn Russell pulling the strings at our-half, and they have a very dangerous backline where full-back Stuart Hogg and centre Huw Jones are outstanding.

And the Scottish pack is big and abrasive, though they will miss the suspended Craig Gilchrist, their giant second-row.

They stood up well to the giant French forwards a fortnight ago, even after losing Gilchrist to a red card.

Add to all that the lively Murrayfield crowd. Many of whom of course, will have been well fortified by a few wee drams before the game begins.

Our lads are only human. They can say no talk of a Grand Slam is being entertained until four matches are won and it becomes a real thing in front of them.

Yet our players cannot be immune to the talk swirling around Irish rugby just now, that coach Andy Farrell has his team believing that they are on the cusp of something special.

At least Farrell has players coming back now.

The word is that Johnny Sexton, Tadhg Furlong, Jamison Gibson-Park, Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw have used the fortnight since the Italy match to get right up to full fitness.

The return of Tadhg Furlong is a big boost for Ireland. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

It leaves only Tadhg Beirne and Finlay Bealham on the outside looking in while nursing injuries.

We have most of our main men ready to go, just when we need them most.

I look forward to Ireland unleashing the sort of deadly back moves that did for Wales and Italy in our matches against those teams.

Mack Hansen, Hugo Keenan and James Lowe were well able to do damage as they pounced for tries.

Ireland can play that way today, I have no doubt about that.

The confidence is running through the team, you can see it when something goes wrong in a game, the heads don’t go down.

It’s just, ‘right, next play, let’s get on with it.’

However I also look forward to Ireland closing the defensive gaps that were evident against Italy.

Bundee Aki was exposed at times against Italy. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

Bundee Aki was played at outside centre that day, instead of the injured Ringrose, and the Italians clearly targeted that area as one in which they could prosper. And they did!

I hope to see that channel closed up – or else Jones and the Scots’ big winger Duhan van der Merwe will make ground through it too.

Ross Byrne played well in Rome, but there is a calmness to Ireland’s game when Sexton is pulling the strings from out-half. He could be our ace today.

For while Russell pulls Scotland’s strings too, he does not necessarily do it always in the right direction.

I expect Ireland’s back-row, so good this season, to get after Russell and rattle him with a couple of thumping tackles.

Or at least make sure that when Russell is kicking, he is under the severest of pressure.

And finally Farrell can then unleash what has become Ireland’s secret weapon – our bench.

I know, I know, I argued for so long that Ireland just don’t have a big enough pick in rugby to win big games without our best players.

However, even with all the injuries that have hit us this season, Ireland are getting a great return from those who come on in these matches.

Prop Tom O’Toole was brilliant against both France and Italy, making big runs with ball in hand.

Second-row-cum-flanker Ryan Baird made a few huge interventions against Italy to turn the tide of that match.

One in particular, a penalty won in a ruck that allowed Ireland to go seven points ahead, was huge.

And both Conor Murray Craig Casey were calm heads at scrum-half when Ireland got off to a flying start in the win over Wales before seeing out the last 20 minutes.

We’ll need the same from Gibson-Park and the others off the bench this afternoon.

For Test rugby is a 23-man game now, you need the fresh bodies.

I would hope our 80 minutes against Italy was given a full forensic analysis on the DVD in the days after the match.

It was a curious contest in which Ireland had bagged the try-bonus point in the 35th minute, but needed Hansen’s second try in the 70th minute to be sure of winning the game.

There was much to be pleased with against Italy, and much for Farrell and his coaches to work on, on the debit side.

Speaking of one of those coaches, Paul O’Connell has done great work on Ireland’s line-out.

With the home team short Gilchrist, you’d hope that Ireland would dominate that set-piece in Edinburgh.

Beirne will be missed as a target, but Iain Henderson is a double Lion and should be well able to help James Ryan and Caelen Doris to win our own ball.

And, of course, we’d hope that Peter O’Mahony, the great spoiler, will do his thing on Scotland’s throws, turning a few of them into ugly fights for the ball.

Our scrum will be solid, with Furlong back and O’Toole to replace him if the legs give out, as you suspect they will, given that Furlong has not started a match since before Christmas.

All in all, I see Ireland winning this – as long as the lads have their eye on the ball, on the game, and on nothing else, this afternoon.

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