Preview: Scotland v Ireland
SIX NATIONS ROUND TWO: Ireland’s world player of the year Jonathan Sexton will have to contend with an in-form Finn Russell as Ireland and their off-colour flyhalf seek to recover from an opening defeat to England with a morale-boosting Six Nations success against Scotland at Murrayfield on Saturday.
Sexton endured an uncomfortable time as a muscular England forced a much-vaunted Ireland side, 2018 Grand Slam champions and November conquerors of the All Blacks on to the back foot, up against the ropes for most of a one-sided contest in Dublin last Saturday that ended with a 32-20 defeat for the Irish.
While the 33-year-old Leinster playmaker looked out of sorts in his first match back after a knee tendon injury, the 26-year-old Russell was razor-sharp in Scotland’s 32-20 home win against Italy, showing the finesse he has found since his move from Glasgow to Paris-based Racing 92 at the end of last season.
The battle between the pair could prove pivotal as Ireland look to avoid suffering back-to-back defeats for the first time since their June 2016 Test series in South Africa — and as the Scots seek to emulate their 27-22 Murrayfield victory they achieved two years ago against an Irish side who sorely missed the absent Sexton.
“Finn is playing very well,” said Scotland coach Gregor Townsend. “That was an excellent performance against Italy.
“He is up against not only the best stand-off in the world but the best player in the world [Sexton], a key man for a team that has a number of key men. But Finn always seems to rise to the occasion.”
The Murrayfield contest will also be a dress rehearsal for the opening Pool A World Cup clash between the countries in Yokohama on September 23.
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The big challenge for Ireland now in 2019 will be to attempt to create history as the first side to lift the Webb Ellis trophy after losing the first game of a World Cup year.
By contrast, they only need go back to 2013, however, to find the last time a team recovered from an opening day loss to lift the Six Nations crown. Wales did so four years ago after starting with a 30-22 defeat by Ireland in Cardiff.
Not that Joe Schmidt’s Ireland will be looking beyond an afternoon of atonement when they line up at Murrayfield, where no visiting side has won in seven successive Six Nations matches.
“We’re hurting,” said Ireland flanker Peter O’Mahony. “The beast within you wants to put it right and that’s what we have to go and do this week.
“There’s no better challenge than going to Murrayfield and having to put in a performance. We’ve got to dust ourselves off and get back to the things we do well,” he added.
Kiwi coach Schmidt, who hands over to Andy Farrell after the World Cup, has made five changes, four of them injury-enforced.
“Last week doesn’t change the mentality too much,” Schmidt insisted.
“We have to build our way into the game. We can’t be chasing things and trying to get instant results.”
Players to watch:
For Scotland: Sean Maitland, who replaces last week’s hat-trick hero Blair Kinghorn on the wing, will have a substantial share of the spotlight on him. The changes to the pack are just as significant. South African-born No.8 Josh Strauss will have to step up. Lock Jonny Gray will add some much-need grunt and prop Simon Berghan will be under pressure in the scrums.
For Ireland: Rob Kearney will look to add a steadying influence when he comes in for his 88th cap at fullback – in place of Robbie Henshaw, who did not have a great game against England. Chris Farrell has a big task in the midfield, coming in for the injured Garry Ringrose at outside centre. Another South African-born forward, lock Quinn Roux, will also provide some grunt to the Irish pack – although the absence of Devin Toner (ankle injury) leaves Ireland’s line-out options a bit thin. Flank Sean O’Brien and No.8 Jack Conan will also have massive roles to play.
Head to head: As always, there are some intriguing contests all over the park. But having two of the game’s most luminous fullbacks going head to head – Stuart Hogg (Scotland) versus Rob Kearney (Ireland) – adds some extra spice to an already tasty treat. The same applies to flyhalf – Finn Russell (Scotland) against Jonathan Sexton (Ireland) – and scrumhalf – Greig Laidlaw (Scotland) versus Conor Murray (Ireland).
2018: Ireland won 28-8, Dublin
2017: Scotland won 27-22, Edinburgh
2016: Ireland won 35-25, Dublin
2015: Ireland won 28-22, Dublin
2015: Ireland won 40-10, Edinburgh
2014: Ireland won 28-6, Dublin
2013: Scotland won 12-8, Edinburgh
2012: Ireland won 32-14, Dublin
2011: Scotland won 10-6, Edinburgh
2011: Ireland won 21-18, Edinburgh
Prediction: If you are a gambling man, there are some good odds to be had on a Scotland win. However, there is a good reason the bookmakers are so generous. Scotland, despite being at home, is expecting a backlash from Ireland. Our money is on Ireland to win by 12 points.
Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Huw Jones, 12 Sam Johnson, 11 Sean Maitland, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Greig Laidlaw (captain), 8 Josh Strauss, 7 Jamie Ritchie, 6 Ryan Wilson, 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Grant Gilchrist, 3 Simon Berghan, 2 Stuart McInally, 1 Allan Dell.
Replacements: 16 Fraser Brown, 17 Jamie Bhatti, 18 D’arcy Rae, 19 Ben Toolis, 20 Rob Harley, 21 Ali Price, 22 Pete Horne, 23 Blair Kinghorn.
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Chris Farrell, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jack Conan, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 Quinn Roux, 4 James Ryan, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Rory Best (captain), 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Dave Kilcoyne, 18 Andrew Porter, 19 Ultan Dillane, 20 Josh van der Flier, 21 John Cooney, 22 Joey Carbery, 23 Jordan Larmour.
Date: Saturday, February 9
Venue: Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh
Kick-off: 14.15 (14.15 GMT)
Expected weather: Clouds and sun, interspersed with a few showers. High of 8°C and a low of 3°C
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant referees: Pascal Gaüzère (France), Federico Anselmi (Argentina)
TMO: Rowan Kitt (England)
AFP & @rugby365com