Preview: Ireland v Scotland

Date published: January 31 2014

Ireland have something of a point to prove against Scott Johnson's Scotland after slipping to a 12-8 defeat at Murrayfield in 2013.

Ireland have something of a point to prove against Scott Johnson's Scotland after slipping to a 12-8 defeat at Murrayfield in 2013.

That loss, and the manner in which they dominated the game to come away empty-handed will not have been forgotten by the home squad. While neither head coach Joe Schmidt nor his players may dare to mention it, this is a side with genuine title-winning credentials. Falling to the Scots at home, on the first weekend of the tournament, would be disastrous.

Neither team approaches the opening clash backed up by a run of victories. That said, Ireland were mesmeric against the All Blacks in November, while Scotland proved less than stimulating. The boys in blue have an awful record away from home in the Six Nations – they have won just once on the road in their last 17 attempts. Where was that? Croke Park, four years ago. Perhaps a note of caution rather than an omen for the hosts, however, as it's the only win on Irish soil the Scots have managed since 1998. Indeed, Schmidt's men have suffered a Round One defeat only once in nine years.

As usual, Ireland appear to hold the aces this time around. The breakdown, now more so than ever, is the front-line, trench warfare of elite rugby. Often, it's a ding-dong battle, and the team that emerges with the most clean, quick ball, turnovers or penalties takes great strides towards winning the game. The Irish are masters of this area and even without the influence of Sean O'Brien – Chris Henry, Peter O'Mahony and even Rory Best are perennial nuisances for their opposition around the ruck.

Scotland's back-row is a formidable one, but its apparent lack of balance could prove costly. Ryan Wilson, Kelly Brown and Dave Denton are powerful, ball-carrying forwards in a similar mould. There isn't a breakdown specialist among them; with Johnson adamant skipper Brown will wear seven as long as he merits his place in the lineup. Tenacious “fetchers” John Barclay, Chris Fusaro, Roddy Grant and Ross Rennie are conspicuous by their absence. Three of the above are fully fit, and in excellent domestic form. Ironically, it is those three that are furthest from pulling on the navy blue jersey.

The set-piece, scrummage in particular, is another battleground that can go a long way to deciding the outcome of a game. No reasonable observer of the recent performances of Best and Cian Healy versus those of Ross Ford and Moray Low would deny Ireland the favourites tag up front. Quality front-rows are in decline just as their importance in world rugby rockets, and Scotland's supply is running low. Low, Geoff Cross and Al Dickinson are not bad players, but neither are they a daunting prospect for the home pack.

Out wide, both sides boast a dangerous set of outside backs, but the visitors struggle to provide the likes of Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland with quality possession. “Not scoring enough tries” is a criticism of their team most Scots are sick of hearing; but that does not render it any less valid.

Beyond the obvious impotency in attack, there is a real problem in Scottish ranks when it comes to ruthlessness and execution. In other words, they don't take their chances. A poignant statistic from last year's tournament: Scotland scored more tries (five) from phase one play than the rest of the nations combined, but were the only side not to score from more than seven phases of possession.

Perhaps it's a mental issue as much as skills-based; a frustrated Duncan Weir said after the 28-0 November loss to South Africa that “we're good enough rugby players”, stressing the need for a cutting edge.

Wherever the heart of the troubles lies, Scotland will likely be feeding off a small possession figure, and facing the infamous Irish choke tackle – a technique that has proved consistently successful, and one put to good use by the Wolfhounds in their win over the Saxons on Saturday. It won't do to squander attacking opportunities. Equally, the Scots cannot rely on Ireland matching their astonishing profligacy of last year's Murrayfield fixture.

Ones to watch:

For Ireland: Centre Luke Marshall is in excellent form for Ulster, and was a major thorn in Scotland's side a year ago with his direct running and line breaks. He's an intelligent attacker, and with Jonny Sexton inside him, will relish the opportunity to test Scotland's new-look midfield partnership.

For Scotland: Much rests on Weir's own squat shoulders. He needs not just to kick-start his backline complete with an untried centre pairing, but to keep the visitors in the right areas of the pitch. Dan Parks was a limited fly-half, but his booming boot proved the difference in that narrow Croke Park win. With the Scotland number ten jersey up for grabs, Weir has a golden opportunity to prove he can run the show in the cauldron of the Aviva Stadium.

Head to head: While there are plenty of interesting match-ups on show, the duel between Best and Ford at the set-piece will be crucial to possession and penalties. In spite of the changes to the scrum protocols, Ford rarely strikes for the ball; often costly in terms of retention and security, and his lineout throwing has been wayward for a long time. Best has recently returned from injury, but the signs are good – he was a stand-out for Ulster in their Heineken Cup win at Leicester Tigers. He will, however, have to overcome the disruptive aerial presence of Jim Hamilton, who got the better of Ireland's lineout a year ago.

Previous results:

2013: Scotland won 12-8 at Murrayfield
2012: Ireland won 32-14 at the Aviva Stadium
2011: Scotland won 10-6 at Murrayfield
2011: Ireland won 21-18 at Murrayfield
2010: Scotland won 23-20 at Croke Park
2009: Ireland won 22-15 at Murrayfield
2008: Ireland won 34-13 at Croke Park
2007: Scotland won 31-21 at Murrayfield
2007: Ireland won 19-18 at Murrayfield
2006: Ireland won 15-9 at Lansdowne Road

Prediction: Everything points to a comfortable home win, with a Schmidt-coached team likely to be clinical in attack. A low-scoring penalty-fest represents Scotland's best hope, but Ireland should gain dominance up front, and exploit that ascendancy out wide. I'm tipping them to win by 12 points.

The teams:

Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Brian O'Driscoll, 12 Luke Marshall, 11 Dave Kearney, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Paul O'Connell (c), 4 Devin Toner, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Martin Moore, 19 Dan Tuohy, 20 Tommy O'Donnell, 21 Isaac Boss, 22 Paddy Jackson, 23 Fergus McFadden

Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Alex Dunbar, 12 Duncan Taylor, 11 Sean Lamont, 10 Duncan Weir, 9 Greig Laidlaw, 8 Dave Denton, 7 Kelly