Ireland and Scotland are preparing for a pivotal Rugby World Cup qualification shootout in Paris.
Progression to the quarter-finals from Pool B is on the line for both sides on Saturday evening at Stade de France.
Here, we pick out some of the major talking points.
The permutations – who needs what?
One of the top five teams in the world is set to be eliminated from the tournament. Barring an unlikely result in the French capital, it will be Ireland, ranked number one, or Scotland, ranked fifth, who bite the dust. Ireland are firmly in the driving seat for qualification. All Andy Farrell’s team need to qualify is a losing bonus point while denying the Scots a winning bonus. That scenario would be enough for the Irish to finish top of the pool ahead of South Africa. The Scots face a far taller order. Gregor Townsend’s side must win with a bonus point (by scoring at least four tries) or by denying their opponents a losing bonus.
Springboks made to sweat
South African eyes will also be firmly fixed on what promises to be a tense affair. The reigning champions completed their pool-stage fixtures last weekend but, due to a quirk in the tournament regulations, could still crash out if all three nations end level on 15 points. For that improbable scenario to materialise, Scotland would need to win by 21 points or more and record a bonus point, with Ireland collecting a single losing bonus point. Talk of conspiracy theories and possible collusion was immediately put to Springboks head coach Jacques Nienaber, who expressed hope there would be no “match-fixing”. Never one to shy away from mind games, South Africa director of rugby Rassie Erasmus claimed his side were in the preferential position.
Decade of dominance
If Scotland are to upset the odds, they must snap an eight-match losing streak against their rivals stretching back to 2017. Ireland have dominated the fixture across the past decade, winning 12 of the last 13 meetings, including a 27-3 pool-stage success at the last World Cup and a 22-7 triumph en route to Six Nations Grand Slam glory earlier this year. Ireland’s players have talked down the significance of that run of results and feel Townsend’s men have improved since being mastered at Murrayfield in March. Nevertheless, the last time Scotland registered a victory over the Irish which would be sufficient for progression this weekend was way back in 2007 – a 31-21 warm-up win ahead of the last World Cup to be staged in France.
Sexton versus Russell
In an intriguing sub-plot, two of the world’s leading number 10s will vie to dictate proceedings. Veteran Ireland captain Johnny Sexton has seamlessly returned from an absence of almost six months through injury and suspension to lead his side to three successive victories and become his country’s all-time leading points scorer along the way. The 2018 world player of the year is as dependable and fiercely competitive as ever and repeatedly delivers when it matters most. Scotland’s Finn Russell, meanwhile, has the ability to unlock a game in any given moment. The talismanic 31-year-old, who was preferred to Sexton for the 2021 British and Irish Lions tour, may well be at the peak of his powers and will be out to conjure some magic when his nation needs it most.
Could gung-ho Scots spook the Irish?
Both sets of players have been in relaxed and confident mood when facing the media. The Scots, however, have been keen to stress that, as the less-fancied nation and the team with more to do, they have little to lose and that the pressure is all on Ireland. The Irish, of course, have proven in recent years that they can handle the heat of almost any situation. Yet this one is slightly different given the dynamics at play. Will the fact Ireland do not necessarily need to win the game take an edge off their play? And will Scotland, already renowned for their intent, go even more gung-ho than normal in search of early points? Captain Jamie Ritchie said his side will “fire all the bullets in their gun” and “won’t die wondering”. Townsend’s team, playing without inhibitions, could ask serious questions of the world’s number one team.