Ireland are facing something of a crossroads heading into this weekend's fixture against a Scotland line-up buoyed after victory over Italy.
Ireland have arrived at something of a crossroads going into this weekend's Six Nations fixture against a Scotland line-up buoyed after victory over Italy.
Win at Murrayfield and their Championship hopes remain possible but lose and fixtures against France and Italy have added pressure attached.
Many Irish readers of this website have long been calling for change in terms of selection from coach Declan Kidney and while losing fly-half Jonathan Sexton was not an area of concern, the inclusion of Luke Marshall in place of Leinster's Gordon D'Arcy could lead to the possible break-up of one of international rugby's longest-serving partnerships.
D'Arcy is injured this week so Ulster youngster Marshall gets the nod ahead of other rivals such as James Downey, who it seems remains out of favour with Kidney (we'll see if he's fit for Munster this week). The other option was to move Brian O'Driscoll to 12 and start Munster team-mate Keith Earls in the outside centre channel. But a straight swap was decided upon and we see Marshall handed a huge chance.
A surprise saw Paddy Jackson leapfrog Ronan O'Gara as Sexton's fly-half replacement – supporters of Ian Madigan scoffed – in what's a bold move from Kidney. Uncharacteristic some might say. One wonders how the young Dungannon man will hold up in the Test arena with Conor Murray instead of Ruan Pienaar as his half-back partner. We believe one would struggle, as a 10, to find a better/intelligent 9 than Pienaar to assist your progress.
Up front coach Kidney also sprung something of a surprise by fast-tracking Tom Court into the loosehead jersey ahead of Dave Kilcoyne. This is a wise move due to Court having more experience of the international scene and Kilcoyne likely to bring more of an impact off the bench than the Ulster prop. The loss of Mike McCarthy to a knee problem is a blow, however, as he has been impressive. In his place comes veteran Donncha O'Callaghan.
This weekend, they need 34-year-old centre O'Driscoll to perform like he did against Wales and Jamie Heaslip not to play like he did against England. Speaking ahead of Sudnay, Munster back Earls has backed BOD to feature at the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England.
“Brian was amazing (in the win) against Wales,” he explained, with Earls having replaced the injured Simon Zebo on the wing for this match.
“I wouldn't be surprised if he goes on until the next World Cup – he is feeling fresh and is buzzing. He has no fear, but is also very intelligent in the way he thinks about the game. His presence lifts you because you know he's willing to do anything for the team. It makes you want to do the same for him.”
Scotland have someone with similar characteristics in their squad as Kelly Brown leads a side that sees just one change from their victory over the Azzurri. Geoff Cross gets the call for Sunday service due to Euan Murray's beliefs and one cannot underplay what belief a win over Ireland would give Scott Johnson's side going into their run-in against Wales and France. Johnson had a simple message for his players too ahead this weekend's fixture.
“We've kept changes to a minimum and are saying to the players: 'You've won one game. Now go out show us you can win another',” explained the coach ahead of Sunday's match.
They certainly have a chance of doing just particularly with the Scots demonstrating against Italy they finally have firepower in their backline in the shape of Tim Visser and Stuart Hogg.
Ones to watch:
For Scotland: We have spoken a lot about what Kelly Brown has provided Saracens in the back-row over the past season – and Scotland have also seen his worth in this Six Nations. The captain's performance on Sunday is instrumental in whether the Scots manage to gain parity against this Irish forward pack. If they can stifle them and also get stuck into the young 10-12 combination, they have a good chance of making it two wins from three in 2013.
For Ireland: Jamie Heaslip had what's known in the business as 'a shocker' in his last outing so will be desperate to rectify his Dublin errors when he runs out at Murrayfield. The captain struggled to adapt to the conditions against England and was guilty of dropping a couple of balls that he would usually take with ease. Experienced internationals don't become bad players overnight though so expect Heaslip to front up this weekend. Ulster backline duo Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall of course will be under the microscope.
Head-to-head: Full-back for this one as two possible British and Irish Lions tourists battle it out. Stuart Hogg has arguably been Six Nations 2013's standout number 15 (cue other home nation full-backs disagreeing) while Rob Kearney rarely lets the side down for either Leinster and Ireland. We currently have both on the plane to Australia but if Hogg can again find space to cut loose, his stock will further rise before final call at Heathrow.
2012: Ireland won 32-14 at 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 Croke Park
2006: Ireland won 15-9 at Lansdowne Road
2005: Ireland won 40-13 at Murrayfield
2004: Ireland won 37-16 at Lansdowne Road
2003: Ireland won 29-10 at Murrayfield
2003: Ireland won 36-6 at Murrayfield
Prediction: While there is inexperience in the backline, we think an Ireland win by 5!
Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Sean Lamont, 12 Matt Scott, 11 Tim Visser, 10 Ruaridh Jackson, 9 Greig Laidlaw, 8 Johnnie Beattie, 7 Kelly Brown (c), 6 Rob Harley, 5 Jim Hamilton, 4 Richie Gray, 3 Geoff Cross, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Ryan Grant.
Replacements: 16 Dougie Hall, 17 Moray Low, 18 Jon Welsh, 19 Alastair Kellock, 20 David Denton, 21 Henry Pyrgos, 22 Duncan Weir, 23 Max Evans.
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Craig Gilroy, 13 Brian O'Driscoll, 12 Luke Marshall, 11 Keith Earls, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip (c), 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Donnacha Ryan, 4 Donncha O'Callaghan, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Tom Court.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Dave Kilcoyne, 18 Declan Fitzpatrick, 19 Devin Toner, 20 Iain Henderson, 21 Eoin Reddan, 22 Ronan O'Gara, 23 Luke Fitzgerald.
Date: Sunday, 24 February
Kick-off: 14:00 GMT
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: JÃ©rÃ´me Garces (France), Greg Garner (England)
Television match official: Eric Gauzins (France)