WITH three wins from three in this championship and an unbeaten run that stretches back 12 months and 10 games, Joe Schmidt should have reason to be cheerful rather than fearful.
The Ireland coach is a cautious man, though, and is fully aware how easily his Grand Slam plans could be derailed by Gregor Townsend’s improving Scottish side.
While everyone has been hyping up the Anglo-Irish battle from day one of this campaign, the reality is the championship could be decided this Saturday if an Irish win is matched by and English defeat in Paris.
But beating Scotland – something Ireland have managed in 14 of their last 18 competitive meetings – is not as easy as it used to be. Indeed, when the sides last met a year ago, Scotland ran out 27-22 winners at Murrayfield.
Since then they have beaten Australia home and away, before narrowly losing to New Zealand in November. “The All Blacks were really under the pump that day and having recently watched the end of that game again, Stuart Hogg was so close to winning it for them at the end – which would have been their first-ever win against a very good All Blacks side,” Schmidt said.
“You also saw what they did to Australia – when they secured a record 53-24 win. So the warning signs were there in the autumn.
“In this tournament they had a hiccup against Wales but they have bounced back. They were 10-0 down and then 17-7 down against France but fought back to win. Then they have proved it again against England last week.
“So they have beaten us, Australia and England in the last 12 months – that’s the world ranked No2, No3 and No4 sides.
“And knowing Gregor, they're going to tweak and improve again. Make no mistake we know we're going to have to be better than we were on Saturday.”
And in particular Ireland are going to have to get better in defence, where they have leaked 12 tries in their last five internationals.
Most notably, they appear vulnerable out wide – especially late on in games, where Italy and Wales scored five tries between them in the final 25 minutes of Ireland’s latest two wins. "Considering the runners Scotland have - the Stuart Hoggs, the Tommy Seymours, the likes of Sean Maitland, we are concerned,” Schmidt warned.
“We have to do better defensively than we have done, conceding three tries two weekends in a row. We didn't stay connected against Wales. We had guys doing different things. But we can repair a lot of that before the Scotland game.”
They need to because the Scottish game-plan isn’t just confined to their slick handlers in the backs. Their forwards too have beefed up. “They put so much energy and pressure into the breakdown,” Schmidt said.
“John Barclay was at his very best, and was ably supported by Hamish Watson, Ryan Wilson, Jonny Gray, against England.
“Then there was Finn Russell who was back pulling the strings, as we know he is capable of. His pass out to Huw Jones at one stage was spectacular. They are such a threatening team, when you think there is nothing on, they conjure something up and that's a real danger for us.
“With this in mind, we've got to make sure we're nailed on. As I said, we think there is probably further improvement in them the way they have stepped up from Wales to France to England and they're right in the mix to win this championship.”
But so are Ireland. If they secure a bonus point win against the Scots – even an England victory, minus the bonus point, would settle the championship this weekend. And no matter how polite the Ireland coach is about the Scots, the reality is they are in a better place than their visitors.
Home advantage counts in this tournament. This season alone, seven of the nine matches have ended in victories for the hosts, Ireland’s win in Paris and England’s in Rome being the exceptions.
Last year told a similar tale. Remove the Italians from the equation, and the only away win posted was by England in Cardiff.
There should have been an Ireland victory at Murrayfield as well, but despite dominating the scrum, defeat was brought home from Scotland, a poor show at the line out and a predictability in attack – where the Scots targeted Ireland’s primary ball carriers – helping to explain that result.
This weekend - despite the fact Ireland won 138 out of 139 rucks against Wales – Schmidt’s team face an almighty battle at the breakdown.
In their victory against England, Scotland forced 10 turnovers, while slowing English ball whenever they were in possession. Key to an Irish success will be their ability to vary their ball carriers and keep the Scots guessing in defence.
As for Ireland’s defence, after conceding seven tries in this department to Italy, Wales and France, and after being destroyed by Stuart Hogg at Murrayfield last year, Ireland simply have to tweak their system, avoid putting any unnecessary defenders on the short side of a ruck than needed, improving their special awareness so that they cannot be caught narrowly and instead can shut off the wide channels that the Scots like to operate in.
Do that, and accompany those plans with the policy used against the Welsh, where their pack was bullied by the relentless nature of Irish onslaughts and victory should follow. Then it’s Twickenham where the hype will be unimaginable.