Judgement day at this World Cup has come early for Ireland and Scotland. The knockout rounds have not even begun at this World Cup but already this is a do-or-die decider: the best Scottish side in a generation meeting probably the greatest Ireland side ever, a clash of two of the top five teams in the world with a last eight place on the line.
We have had great pool stage encounters before at this tournament but perhaps none with these sort of stakes. This feels like an occasion that, even at this early stage of the World Cup, will come to be a defining day in the rugby histories of these two Celtic nations.
“I’d say it’s the biggest game of my career,” Scotland captain Jamie Ritchie said this week. “But that’s exciting. This is why we play the game, this is why we want to come to World Cups, for games like this where you have the opportunity to do something special.
“We believe we can go there, do enough to get out of the pool and keep our World Cup alive. We’re not going to die wondering. We’ve got to fire every bullet in our gun and play our best game. I know that if we put out our best performance we’re in with a shot.”
Things aren’t totally straightforward in this pool of death. There is still a convoluted scenario that could see South Africa exit the tournament, but the complex mathematics are such that it must be dismissed only as a hypothetical oddity; the Springboks will feel relatively safe watching on.
More realistically, a win of any kind will suffice for Ireland, while two bonus points in defeat would also do. Scotland have to win, preferably with a bonus point with Ireland out of a sight and denied the four tries that Andy Farrell’s side will no doubt be seeking.
It is probably best to outline the challenge that Scotland are facing, with Ireland’s pre-eminence in this rivalry at times understated. It is six years since the Scots have beaten Ireland, a run that includes the meek defeat four years ago in which they registered only a single Greig Laidlaw penalty. Back-to-back pool stage exits for this Scottish golden generation would be a real disappointment.
Perhaps it’s Ireland’s ability to sustain their defensive efforts through the extended phase counts that Scotland prefer, but an attack that remains their great strength has consistently found putting points on Ireland tough. Gregor Townsend’s side tallied just five last year and seven in Edinburgh in March in a game which Ireland were forced to play almost the entirety of the second half without a hooker.
“Those past results show what a good team Ireland are,” Townsend said on Thursday. “They’re number one in the world and we’ve not been able to beat them for a while so that gets our focus even narrower on delivering our best performance to win.
“We definitely want to be the team that goes out there fearless with nothing to lose. The players have performed in massive games before. We were underdogs but we have broken records before, whether it was not winning in Paris, not winning at Twickenham, we hadn’t beaten England for seven or so years.
“This is another opportunity to break another record. We believe in them, we believe in where they are mentally as a group and where they are physically. They are ready to play their best rugby.”
That Six Nations meeting feels like the point at which Ireland truly showed how far they had come. A trip to Murrayfield represented a significant fence to clear on their charge to a grand slam; three forward injuries inside 35 minutes and Ronan Kelleher’s withdrawal soon after the interval made the obstacle larger still.
But Ireland kept on cantering, just as they have throughout their rise to number one in the world. Each and every question has been answered in this last 18 months particularly. Like the great French physicist Blaise Pascal, Ireland have become experts on pressure.
Yet it still feels impossible to totally unsnarl Andy Farrell’s men from the messy Irish tangles of World Cups past, even if this team has already achieved so much more than many of their quadrennial predecessors. This current crop appear to carry that burden in comfort, but another test of their broad shoulders awaits.
“It’s not about being afraid of it, it’s about embracing it and getting on with it,” prop Tadhg Furlong explained of handling the weight of expectation and history this week. “It brings the best out of rugby players. It shows your mentality, it shows what you’re about, it shows what the group’s about. It shows a lot and the proof is always in the pudding in terms of how the match goes and how you deal with the pressure.”
A day for World Cup warriors feels a fitting occasion for Peter O’Mahony’s 100th cap – the loading up of five back rowers in Scotland’s squad hints at how crucial the battle on the floor might be. How Johnny Sexton and Finn Russell make use of the spaces in a city which they have both called home will equally be key – fashion week may just have concluded in Paris but the fly halves are two of rugby’s finest designers who should enjoy this sort of stage to show off their fancier frocks.
Because there is no doubt that these are two nations currently in fine vogue and it would be a great shame if either fails to strut their stuff. International rugby is on the brink of another epochal change and there is far from any guarantee that Ireland and Scotland will ever approach a tournament in this sort of shape again; come Sunday morning, one squad might well be left contemplating the regrets of the chance of a lifetime squandered.