Tucked in the middle of Saturday’s rundown, Ireland will make their bid to win the Six Nations against Scotland.
Before they lost in Cardiff this fixture looked like Ireland’s last hurdle for a Grand Slam, as well as back-to-back championships, but that defeat has smudged any pre-hedged bets on Irish success. That said, they still have an excellent chance to win the title.
They are rightly favourites for this one at Murrayfield, make no mistake, and even the fiercest tartan supporter would concede that Ireland should triumph.
But last week’s defeat exposed a lack of imagination in attack. Ireland, should they win the title, seem likely to set a new record for the side with the fewest tries scored to win a championship – beating the current record held by Wales with nine.
Ireland have scored just four so far, something that isn’t a problem when you’re winning as comfortably as they did against England, but when your attack then stutters you have an issue.
Of course Ireland can score tries, just look at the quality in the backline of Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney, but only if the tactics allow and Ireland are prepared to unlock defences as much with the ball in hand as off the boot.
The insane Welsh tackling statistics and high number of Irish carries indicated a lack of cutting edge when it was needed most last week, but the necessary work will have been done in training to sharpen up and you know Joe Schmidt will have been meticulous as ever.
Setting up the running game obviously requires a working set-piece. Ireland and Paul O’Connell will have been infuriated at losing four of their 12 lineouts in Cardiff, normally a certain strength.
With Jonathan Sexton back on track (he doesn’t have consecutive bad games) Ireland should have the ability to chase whatever target Wales post in the prior game, if any, along with being able to put pressure of England, but it’s all about the mindset.
Rather than trying to make their opponents submit, can they open up and run them ragged? Scotland can certainly cause some problems as they proved with a stubborn first half at Twickenham.
Unfortunately with Vern Cotter’s side we’re still talking about their potential rather than any success. Individuals have impressed in this championship – Mark Bennett, Stuart Hogg, Blair Cowan and Rob Harley in the back row – but running Wales and a scattergun French side close hasn’t really been enough.
Scotland have made leaps in some areas more than others, with their offloading game in attack a noticeable improvement, but England broke their defensive line at will last week and really should have thrashed them.
Returning to Murrayfield should be coming home to a stronghold, yet Scotland have lost their last five Six Nations matches at home in a run that hasn’t been this bad since 1970.
Vern Cotter is obviously the right man for the job going forward, based on the respect his players have for the former Clermont boss and at the hints coming from their performances. He’s also yet to complete a full calendar year in the role, while the feeling has always been that Scotland in 2019 will be a better group than in 2015.
Defeating Ireland and avoiding the Wooden Spoon would be a tremendous achievement, but one that doesn’t appear likely. Ireland are a better side than the one which lost at Murrayfield two years ago, although it would be true to form of Scotland to make them work for any victory.
Ones to watch:
For Scotland: In at six for Harley comes Adam Ashe, the promising Glasgow Warriors back-rower who missed a large portion of the start of this season through injury. A number eight by trade, Ashe made his Scotland debut last year at the age of 20 against South Africa and benefited from training in New Zealand before he made his international bow. Will pack a punch with his carrying.
For Ireland: Returning at loosehead prop comes Cian Healy, who has had to settle for caps off the bench during this Six Nations thanks to injury and the good form of his Leinster team-mate Jack McGrath. An excellent scrummager as we well know, Healy’s carrying and breakdown work will also be welcome as Ireland look to control the possession and dent the defence.
Head-to-head: The master against the rising star. Jonny Gray goes fresh from facing the physical Courtney Lawes to the man with the tireless engine, Paul O’Connell. This seems to be the former British and Irish Lions captain’s final Six Nations game, with his record before the weekend showing 33 wins from 50 matches in the competition. Gray is no slouch and has the look of a future Lion himself, packing plenty of raw potential at 21.
2014: Ireland won 28-6 at the Aviva Stadium
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: Doubting Ireland after one Test loss following ten straight wins is naïve. Despite their limited haul of tries so far the ability is there to rack up a score, quite possibly enough to win the title, as Ireland look to win back-to-back championships for the first time since the 1980s.
Scotland won’t lie down, but they also won’t keep the pace in what will be a pivotal point in the context of the day with England waiting for the turn. Ireland by 12.
Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Mark Bennett, 12 Matt Scott, 11 Dougie Fife, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Greig Laidlaw (c), 8 David Denton, 7 Blair Cowan, 6 Adam Ashe, 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Jim Hamilton, 3 Euan Murray, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Ryan Grant.
Replacements: 16 Fraser Brown, 17 Alasdair Dickinson, 18 Geoff Cross, 19 Tim Swinson, 20 Rob Harley, 21 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 22 Greig Tonks, 23 Tim Visser
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Luke Fitzgerald, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O'Brien, 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 Iain Henderson, 20 Jordi Murphy, 21 Eoin Reddan, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Felix Jones
Date: Saturday, March 21
Venue: Murrayfield, Edinburgh
Kick-off: 14:30 GMT
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant Referees: Pascal Gauzère (France), Federico Anselmi (Argentina)
TMO: Graham Hughes (England)