Preview: Scotland v Ireland

Date published: February 3 2017

Scotland will be looking to end a four-match losing streak against Ireland when these sides resume hostilities at Murrayfield on Saturday.

Apart from it being their opening match of the competition, the home side will not lack any motivation to kickstart their campaign with a victory.

Vern Cotter’s rein as head coach comes to an end at the end of the tournament so his players will be determined to give him a memorable send-off and they will also be hoping to make a positive impression on British and Irish Lions boss Warren Gatland in a bid to win a place in his squad for the upcoming tour to New Zealand.

Under Cotter’s guidance, Scotland have shown steady improvement over the last three years and although Ireland are the favourites to win this Test, they will have to dig deep to beat their hosts who are particularly impressive on their home turf and whose two professional outfits, Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh, have been performing well in the PRO12 and Europe.

Scotland have a solid pack of forwards and some brilliant backs with the likes of the Gray brothers – Jonny and Richie – and Josh Strauss expected to lay the foundation up front to allow attacking threats like Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg and Huw Jones to run at the Irish.

Cotter admitted that there is nervousness in his squad ahead of this weekend’s clash but feels they can turn that collective feeling into a positive.

“I can feel a nervousness. They know it’s a big game. They’re ready to roll their sleeves up and have a go,” he said.

“I think being a little bit nervous means you’re sharper and more on edge. You need that. You need to be wary of the opposition. Especially against these guys.

“We need to be sharp. We need to be able to adapt. They’ll have plays we haven’t seen, we need to adapt to them.”

Ireland know they have to hit the ground running if they want to stand a chance of winning back the trophy which they surrendered to England last year after back-to-back tournament wins in 2014 and 2015.

Apart from seasoned campaigners like captain Rory Best Devin Toner and Jamie Heaslip in the pack and Conor Murray and Rob Kearney in the backs, Ireland have great depth in their ranks.

Keep an eye on young midfield duo of Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose, who are an exciting combination, while Paddy Jackson has proven an able deputy to the injury prone Jonny Sexton.

Last year’s campaign was one to forget for the men from the Emerald Isle as they finished third after losing two of their five Tests, but they bounced back to beat South Africa, New Zealand and Australia and in doing so became the first Northern Hemisphere country to beat all of the Southern Hemisphere’s traditional powerhouses for some time.

Head coach Joe Schmidt put to rest fears that he would return to his country of birth, New Zealand, by signing a new contract which will keep him at the helm of Irish rugby through to the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, and he knows a positive start is imperative if they want to win back the title from England who they face in their last match of the campaign.

Players to watch:

For Scotland: Rookie midfielder Huw Jones made a terrific start to his Test career and has already crossed the whitewash on two occasions, after shining on attack in his three previous Tests. He was particularly impressive in a narrow loss to Australia – when he scored both those tries – in last year’s end-of-year Tests. The 23-year-old will look to continue where he left off in that Test and if he finds himself in space, he should prove a handful to his opponents.

For Ireland: South Africa’s loss has been Ireland’s gain and one year after making his Test debut against Wales in this tournament, CJ Stander has cemented his place in his adopted country’s starting line-up. The former Springbok U20 representative is one of the most prolific ball carriers in the game and Scotland’s defence will be severly tested by the 26-year-old. Stander’s game is not just about ball-carrying, however, and don’t be surprised if he makes a big impact in defence as well.

Head-to-head: With British and Irish Lions spots up for grabs there will be several mouth-watering battles across the park, but we’ll focus on the duel between the respective scrum-halves. While Ireland’s Conor Murray is in a rich vein in form and is favoured by many to wear the Lions number nine Test jersey, Scotland’s captain Greig Laidlaw also has ambitions of making the touring squad. Murray was arguably the world’s best scrum-half in 2016 and will want to build on that form while Laidlaw will want to bring him down a notch by leading from the front for the hosts.

Previous results:

2016: Ireland won 35-25 in Dublin
2015: Ireland won 28-22 in Dublin
2015: Ireland won 40-10 at Murrayfield
2014: Ireland won 28-6 in Dublin
2013: Scotland won 12-8 at Murrayfield
2012: Ireland won 32-14 in Dublin
2011: Scotland won 10-6 at Murrayfield
2011: Ireland won 21-18 at Murrayfield

Prediction: Although Scotland will be competitive in their own backyard, Ireland are a well-drilled team and will have too much firepower for their hosts. Ireland to win by five points.

The teams:

Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Huw Jones, 12 Alex Dunbar, 11 Tommy Seymour, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Greig Laidlaw (c), 8 Josh Strauss, 7 Hamish Watson, 6 Ryan Wilson, 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Richie Gray, 3 Zander Fagerson, 2 Fraser Brown, 1 Allan Dell
Replacements: 16 Ross Ford, 17 Gordon Reid, 18 Simon Berghan, 19 Tim Swinson, 20 John Barclay, 21 Ali Price, 22 Duncan Weir, 23 Mark Bennett

Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 CJ Stander, 5 Devin Toner, 4 Iain Henderson, 3 Tadgh Furlong, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Jack McGrath
Replacements: 16 Niall Scannell, 17 Cian Healy, 18 John Ryan, 19 Ultan Dillane, 20 Josh van der Flier, 21 Kieran Marmion, 22 Ian Keatley, 23 Tommy Bowe

Date: Saturday, February 4
Venue: Murrayfield
Kick-off: 15:25 (14:25 GMT)
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant Referees: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Nick Briant (New Zealand)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)