Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition)

Irish bid to seal play-off spot as Scots try to gatecrash party


IRELAND'S victory over defending champions South Africa two weeks ago has been hailed as one of the great Rugby World Cup performanc­es, and they will not wish to spoil that by losing to Scotland tonight (9pm kick-off).

Several members of the squad have endured heartbreak at previous World Cups, and driven on by talismanic captain Johnny Sexton – who retires after the tournament – they will be hungry to put the game to bed early on.

The No 1-ranked team in the world will qualify for the knockout stages with a win or a draw.

Defeat by eight points or more without getting a try bonus point would see Ireland crash out.

AFP Sport picks out three factors that could be key in the match:

Sexton v Russell: a titanic duel

Sexton may downplay it, but whoever wins the flyhalf battle between him and his opposite number, Scotland's Finn Russell, will decide the match.

The crowd are in for a treat as two of the greatest playmakers of the modern era pull the strings.

Sexton will be no frills, or ‘high church', as former Ireland fullback Hugo MacNeill described him to AFP, calling him “discipline­d, controlled and with a structured game”, whereas Russell is Welsh chapel – “more populist and crowd-pleasing”.

Sexton may be 38, but he has certainly not looked it in his performanc­es so far, something backs coach Mike Catt puts down to the freshness he derived from being banned before the tournament.

Russell is capable of the most wonderful and outlandish passes and kicks that expose opponents' defences.

However, as with any magician, the 31-year-old's tricks can also fail to come off, and can sometimes provide rich pickings for their rivals.

Both normally would be targeted early on, but Russell says the dark arts of rugby will stay firmly in their box when it comes to Scotland's handling of Sexton.

“I wouldn't see the need to go over the top and put him off his stride or take him out,” said Russell.

Gerulaitis sets precedent for Scots

Scotland could be forgiven for not bothering to turn up if they studied the statistics too closely.

Ireland are ranked No 1 in the world, are seeking a record-extending 17th successive Test win and have beaten the Scots in their past eight meetings.

However, Catt said that meant nothing.

“No, I don't think it gives them (the players) anything,” he said, referring to the winning run.

“History is history. It doesn't come into it at all, from our point of view.”

If anything has been learnt during the run, Catt said, it was more how to cope with big-match pressure dating back to the historic come-from-behind 2-1 series win in New Zealand last year.

If the Scots need to draw inspiratio­n from anywhere, then it is the late American tennis player Vitas Gerulaitis when he beat Jimmy Connors in January 1980 after losing to him 16 consecutiv­e times.

“Let that be a lesson to you all. No one beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row,” said the charismati­c star.

Calm heads required

The stakes are high and when it concerns two teams that have a history of prickly encounters, this match threatens to boil over.

Certainly Jean Kleyn believes this will be the case. The 30-year-old former Ireland lock, who is now in the South Africa squad, experience­d that in matches between his Irish province Munster and Scottish sides.

Russell did his best to fan the flames earlier in the week, stirring up Peter O'Mahony, who has had his disciplina­ry problems in the past and will be emotional on his 100th cap.

“There might be someone like Peter O'Mahony trying to start something, handbags or something like that.

“Whoever manages (the emotion) the best will probably come out the other end.”

O'Mahony said yesterday that he is more likely to have his close friend Anthony “Axel” Foley, who died in Paris in October 2016, on his mind than reaching the 100-cap milestone.

“Look, it was funny, myself and Johnny (Sexton) had a conversati­on about it on the way to the South Africa game,” he said.

“Sometimes it's weird to be in Paris and think about Axel and what happened.

“When you come to Paris, what certainly comes to mind are the fondest memories we had together, and the amount of inspiratio­n that he gave not just to me, but lots of young kids in Munster and Ireland.”

 ?? TIM KEETON EPA ?? WHOEVER wins the flyhalf battle between Ireland’s Johnny Sexton (pictured) and Scotland’s Finn Russell will decide tonight’s clash, the writer feels. |
TIM KEETON EPA WHOEVER wins the flyhalf battle between Ireland’s Johnny Sexton (pictured) and Scotland’s Finn Russell will decide tonight’s clash, the writer feels. |

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