Ireland and Scotland face off at the Aviva on Sunday in the third Six Nations game of the weekend, with the home team looking to banish bad memories of the autumn series, while Scotland are searching for consecutive victories against Ireland for the first time since back to back (Five Nations!) wins in 1998 and 1999.
Two Ulstermen, Andrew Trimble and Luke Marshall, are somewhat surprising inclusions in Joe Schmidt’s first Six Nations selection. With Luke Fitzgerald, yet again, unlucky to be ruled out, Andrew Trimble steps onto the left wing with Fergus McFadden on the bench despite a strong outing for the Wolfhounds at Kingsholm last weekend.
Marshall is preferred to Gordon D’Arcy in the midfield, with Schmidt possibly concerned about the short turnaround for D’Arcy, who also had a stomach bug earlier in the week, before a crunch Welsh game next week. Brian O’Driscoll will partner Marshall, becoming Ireland’s most capped player in doing so – however, that won’t distract him from the job at hand. Murray and Sexton provide continuity at half back, and the Kearney brothers form two thirds of a physical back three. Isaac Boss and Paddy Jackson cover nine and ten respectively.
Rory Best is the sole representative outside of Leinster with a front row ticket. Mike Ross and key man Cian Healy will pack down either side of the Ulsterman, while Sean Cronin looks set to be sprung from the bench in the final quarter along with Jack McGrath and promising tight head Martin Moore, making that five of the six front row positions from Leinster.
Paul O’Connell and Devin Toner, superb against the All Blacks and a safety first option in a lineout which has struggled against Scotland in recent years, continue in the engine room while Dan Tuohy edges out Ulster teammate Iain Henderson on the bench.
Chris Henry comes in for Sean O’Brien, as expected, fighting off strong competition for places in the back row. Tommy O’Donnell makes the bench giving Ireland a second openside option should that be required, and they’ll certainly be looking to compete strongly at the breakdown. Jamie Heaslip packs down at the base of the scrum.
Scott Johnson’s selection has raised eyebrows not least because the absence of Glasgow Warriors’ Chris Fusaro leaves Scotland without a genuine openside flanker in the squad. Captain Kelly Brown will continue to wear seven in a back row with David Denton at the base of the scrum and Ryan Wilson on the opposite flank. Johnny Beattie had a virus this week but takes a place on the bench. Elsewhere in the pack Ryan Grant, Ross Ford and Moray Low form the front row and Tim Swinson partners Jim Hamilton in the second row, with Richie Gray a useful replacement.
Sean Maitland reverts to the right wing to make room for Stuart Hogg at fullback and Sean Lamont completes a strong back three. Alex Dunbar and Duncan Taylor both start their first Six Nations games in the centre, and Duncan Weir is preferred to Ruaridh Jackson at fly-half. Scotland will look to Greig Laidlaw to run their game from scrumhalf, but have Chris Cusiter on stand-by for an injection of pace in the second half.
All Eyes On
One half of the great Irish duo – Brian O’Driscoll – might be on his way out at the end of this season but the other half – Paul O’Connell – has no such intentions of finishing his illustrious career just yet. Benefitting from a new, tailored training schedule, O’Connell is fit again and enjoying a new lease of life on the pitch. The skipper is clearly excited by the prospects of Schmidt’s Ireland and improvements in certain aspects of O’Connell’s game, namely deft hands and a quality offload, make him as good a player now as he has been for three or four years.
2013 ended frustratingly for Stuart Hogg, as injury ruled him out of the autumn internationals and he’s scratched around for form since returning for the Warriors. But he remains the most likely to create opportunities in a Scottish backline which has suffered its fair share of shutouts in recent years. If Ireland kick the ball too deep it will be returned with interest via that hefty left boot of his, and if their kick chase isn’t spot on then expect Hogg to cut a precise line with electric pace through their defence.
Head to head: Ryan Grant v Mike Ross
It may not be the most obvious or decisive of battles, but Ryan Grant possesses the firepower to seriously weaken Ireland’s attack if Ross is exposed at the scrum. Without Sean O’Brien Ireland will look to Cian Healy as one of the few ball carriers with a similar explosiveness in contact to put them on the front foot. To negate that threat Grant must target Ross, as the relatively weaker link in the Irish scrum, keeping Healy bogged down in the tight. Should Ross, who faces growing pressure from Martin Moore for his tight-head spot, have parity or better, then Healy is a potential match winner in the loose for Ireland.
Despite a 12-8 loss at Murrayfield last year, it’s hard not to see Ireland as overwhelming favourites for this Six Nations opener at the Aviva Stadium. They’re riding the crest of a wave, set in motion by Joe Schmidt and a much improved performance against New Zealand which will undoubtedly see results begin to turn. Scotland will look to disrupt the Irish set piece, as they did with great success last season, but Ireland’s superior breakdown expertise should prove decisive. Ireland by 12.
By David Blair (@viscount_dave)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images