PREVIEW: Scotland v Ireland

Fri, 03 Feb 2017 05:19
Large greig laidlaw and rory best 2017 800

SIX NATIONS ROUND ONE: Scotland coach Vern Cotter has warned his emerging side they face "a huge task" against Ireland in their Six Nations opener at Murrayfield on Saturday.

The Irish arrive in Edinburgh still buoyed by their first-ever victory over world champions New Zealand in Chicago in November.

Ireland, guided by Cotter's fellow Kiwi and former Clermont Auvergne and Bay of Plenty assistant Joe Schmidt, achieved a stunning 40-29 success against the All Blacks at Soldier Field.

That led Cotter to try to play down the expectations surrounding his own improving side by saying of Ireland: "It's a huge task to try to break down a team that doesn't have any weaknesses at all.

"They [Ireland] only have strengths, with a very control-focused game plan. Teams beat the All Blacks rarely but beating them with 40 points…that's something."

Cotter added: It's a tough start for us. We'd love to be able to beat them, but it's going to take a huge effort."

Ireland, who clinched the 2015 championship with a 44-10 win against the Scots at Murrayfield, made history with their five-try win against New Zealand in November, but Scotland underlined their own progress with victories over Argentina and Georgia and a near miss against Australia.

Former Ireland wing Shane Horgan believes that Cotter, who will join Montpellier in the French Top 14 after making way for Glasgow coach Gregor Townsend in June, has "the best group of Scottish players in 25 years".

Meanwhile, former Scotland centre Alan Tait said the current side stood comparison with the 1999 team of which he was a member that won the last Five Nations title in 1999.

Saturday's match will be a momentous contest in at least one respect as it will mark the arrival of the trial bonus-point system (extra points will be awarded to sides who score four tries and also who lose by seven points or less) in the Six Nations Championship.

The Scots do not have history on their side, however. They have not won an opening Championship match since 2006 and have also lost their last four encounters with Ireland.

But Ireland will be without the guiding light of Johnny Sexton as the Leinster flyhalf has a calf injury and will be replaced by Ulster's Paddy Jackson.

A concerned Schmidt was wary of Scotland's ability to upset his superbly-drilled unit.

"Scotland away first up is really tough," said Schmidt. "They've been going really well. 

"We expect a torrid time. They are in super shape at the moment."

The positive mood created by Scotland's encouraging November performances had been enhanced with Glasgow's progress to the quarterfinals of the European Champions Cup, which included a remarkable 43-0 win away to two-time champions Leicester.

Cotter's starting XV features nine Glasgow players - including the dazzling fullback Stuart Hogg, who was voted Player of the 2016 Six Nations.

Scotland also have Huw Jones returning in midfield. The Stormers centre made a huge impact on his first international start in November, scoring two first-half tries in the 22-23 defeat by Australia.

Ireland will doubtless miss the tactical kicking of Sexton, but they have ten of the starting XV who secured victory over the All Blacks three months ago.

Not that Schmidt is dwelling on that historic success.

"I think we've got to get that absolutely out of our mind," he said. "It's a fantastic memory, but we've got to really work hard to try to build a few new memories and that is going to be tough."

Players to watch:

For Scotland: Scotland have an exciting backline and fullback Stuart Hogg is the pick of the bunch. He is one of the best in his position and he can crack open any defence. Centre Huw Jones has shown how dangerous he can be after some fantastic performance in November, while Sean Maitland has speed to burn on the wing. In the pack, Ryan Wilson is a big ball carrier, while locks and brothers Jonny and Richie Gray are vital in the set pieces.

For Ireland: Centre Robbie Henshaw is a smart player in the midfield and he can give the Scottish defence a whole lot of problems with ball in hand. Scrumhalf Conor Murray is an exceptional talent in the No.9 jersey and he will be wanting to dictate play from the first whistle. Up front, Ireland have a strong back row with the likes of Christiaan Stander, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip, while captain and hooker Rory Best plays out of his skin in every single game.

Head to head: The battle between the two scrumhalves, Greig Laidlaw and Conor Murray should be an intriguing one. Flyhalves Finn Russell and Paddy Jackson also have a lot of responsibility on their shoulders in terms of decision-making. There are some big boys in both packs -  particularly the No.8s with Josh Strauss and Jamie Heaslip both eager to crash that ball up.

Recent results:
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
2010: Scotland won 23-20, Dublin
2009: Ireland won 22-15, Edinburgh

Prediction: Many believe Scotland can win this one as they have an exciting team and are playing at home. However, Ireland have shown recently they can go into a step further in the big games and they should take this one by less than five points.

Teams: 

Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Huw Jones, 12 Alex Dunbar, 11 Tommy Seymour, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Greig Laidlaw (captain), 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 Christiaan Stander, 5 Devin Toner, 4 Iain Henderson, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Rory Best, 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, Edinburgh
Kick-off: 14.25 (14.25 GMT)
Expected weather: It will be cold and wet with a high of only 6°C. There is also an 80 percent chance of rain and cloudy throughout the day.
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant referees: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Nick Briant (New Zealand)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)

Agence France-Presse

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SIX NATIONS
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Team P W D L Pts
England 0 0 0 0 0
Ireland 0 0 0 0 0
France 0 0 0 0 0
Scotland 0 0 0 0 0
Wales 0 0 0 0 0
Italy 0 0 0 0 0