Six Nations Ireland v Scotland preview
Forget Le Crunch over in Paris. In Dublin we have An Cogadh Ceilteach as Ireland host Scotland in the Six Nations.
Ireland are now the only unbeaten team in the competition. Schedulers are obviously hoping for a blockbuster final match at Twickenham on St Patrick’s day, as Ireland visit England, but the outcome here could render that match a little less spicy with the bonus points system.
A bonus point win for the Irish here, twinned with an English failure to do the same in Paris, could see Ireland lift the Six Nations trophy a week early.
Of course, there’s the small matter of this weekend’s visitors…
The Scots are fresh from their victory over the Auld Enemy, England. Much has been made of their poor record away from Murrayfield, but while Ireland are favourites, the mental salve of Scotland winning two games in a row in the Six Nations cannot be underestimated. This should be spiky.
The Scots are almost entirely unchanged from the side that handily bested England, although Blair Kinghorn gets his first start on the wing in place of the injured Tommy Seymour. They have welcomed back Fraser Brown to the bench, while Lee Jones fills the spot Kinghorn has stepped up from.
Ireland have some vital players returning. Tadhg Furlong is back at the cornerstone of the scrum, while new-age enforcer Iain Henderson is back on the bench. Garry Ringronse returns to the fold, in place of the injured Chris Farrell, and the dynamic, hot-stepping Jordan Larmour joins Henderson among the replacements.
So what will be bubbling in Dublin? We take a look at where the game could be won and lost…
Key Battle Areas
Last year, in a bout between Glasgow and Munster, many Irish pundits, including Ronan O’Gara, were incensed by a perceived tactic of targetting box-kicking master Conor Murray’s standing leg.
The scrum-half himself said after that match that he was “properly p***** off about that.”
At the time, Gregor Townsend dismissed the whole thing. With Townsend now Scotland coach, though, many eyes will fall on Murray’s pocket behind the ruck.
Related: Ireland 37-27 Wales match report
Some of the Scottish players know that pressuring the distributers and kickers can be key. Obviously referee Wayne Barnes will keenly observe this area, but if the Scots can legally rattle and block Murray, they gain an edge. With time, though, Murray can murder your future momentum. His box-kicking is sublime.
In the sky
The reason pressuring kickers could be a ploy is because Ireland can bend games to their will with their kicking game. Murray and Sexton are indiscriminate with the ruthlessness of their game management. And the Irish back-three are hungry to regather.
Some see Kinghorn’s selection ahead of the more experienced Lee Jones as a potential miscalculation, but if you look at Scotland’s back-three, there are effectively three full-backs there. Kinghorn has played the whopping majority of his pro rugby at 15. Sean Maitland is no stranger to the sweeper role. Stuart Hogg is Stuart Hogg.
Air traffic control will be vital. Especially when you look at Ireland’s wings on either side of the dependable Rob Kearney. Keith Earls is in the form of his life and Jacob Stockdale is loving this Test rugby lark.
The lucky 13s
When Scotland named their side, Brian O’Driscoll facetiously tweeted: “Huw Jones kept his place???!”
Jones’s two-try performance against England had many purring. He can run switchblade lines and he has the eye and gas to get to the line. When Finn Russell, Hogg and him are on song and motoring to the gain-line, people start to sweat.
Ireland have not had the fortune of seeing the same face at 13 every game this tournament. Robbie Henshaw is out after winging himself against Italy. Farrell is gone with a season-scuppering knee problem, and Ringrose returns after ankle issues.
Related: Scotland 25-13 England match report
Ringrose has only played six games all season and he is still slightly green. However, he has great promise and is a silky runner. Can he get the defensive system locked down in time? In truth, it’s unlikely we’ll see a lot of these two standing exactly opposite one another, but it’s nice to compare and contrast.
While it is true Scotland burst beyond England’s gain-line defence in the last round, it was their own hounding work there and at the breakdown that saw them secure victory.
Beyond the jostling near Murray, the Scots will hope to have the same field day with hands in the ruck. John Barclay and Hamish Watson will be roaring.
And yet Ireland have well-established plans in place. Returning Furlong is so very comfortable being a pivot; a tip-on man in midfield. Sexton can masterfully feed a sloping backline with decoy runners around. Or he can get rid of it. There is constant work-rate.
And off the bench, Ireland have Jordi Murphy and Henderson to blast on in traffic while Larmour will dance away (and replacement hooker Sean Cronin ain’t no slouch, either). Scotland ran England and France off the park. Ireland may not want to play at that same lick of pace, but they will be confident they have the personnel in reserve to ensure they won’t wilt at the Aviva.
Ireland: Rob Kearney; Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rory Best (capt), Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, Devin Toner, Peter O’Mahony, Dan Leavy, CJ Stander.
Replacements: Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath, Andrew Porter, Iain Henderson, Jordi Murphy, Kieran Marmion, Joey Carbery, Jordan Larmour.
Scotland: Stuart Hogg, Blair Kinghorn, Huw Jones, Pete Horne, Sean Maitland, Finn Russell, Greig Laidlaw, Gordon Reid, Stuart McInally, Simon Berghan, Grant Gilchrist, Jonny Gray, John Barclay (capt), Hamish Watson, Ryan Wilson.
Replacements: Fraser Brown, Jamie Bhatti, WP Nel, Tim Swinson, David Denton, Ali Price, Nick Grigg, Lee Jones
What time does Ireland v Scotland kick off?
Ireland v Scotland, Saturday 10 March, 2.15pm, Aviva Stadium
Some consider Wayne Barnes to be the best referee in the world right now. Well there will be a lot of eyes on him on Saturday. Many assume that Scotland will not get as much leeway at the breakdown as they did against England. And last time he refereed Scotland, he gave six penalties against Ryan Wilson and showed him a yellow. Meanwhile, the Scots have asked the ref to watch out for Ireland slowing the game right down or even time-wasting.
The TV Details