Preview: Ireland v Scotland
Preview: Ireland v ScotlandSHARE
The Irish will be determined to hand coach Joe Schmidt a dream Six Nations debut when they welcome Scotland to the Aviva Stadium on Sunday.
The former Leinster mentor enters his first Six Nations championship, having replaced Declan Kidney after last year’s disastrous northern hemisphere campaign in which Ireland finished an abysmal fifth.
Given the shambolic 2013 season, there’s little room for regression, and while an improved campaign is expected, Schmidt and his charges’ will not have an extreme amount of pressure on them.
It’s an ideal situation to be in for a highly successful provincial coach as he starts to rebuild a talented national side and take the first steps towards moulding them into champions.
The reinvigorated Irish are full of optimism after pushing the All Blacks to the limit last time out, and they have spoken at length about the goal of starting 2014 where they left off in the 2013 season finale at the selfsame Aviva Stadium.
Schmidt, a real student of the game, has injected the high-level tactical nous into the Irish set up that it lacked during the Kidney era and the players seem to be embracing the fresh set of ideas.
With it being Schmidt’s maiden Six Nations, and the last in the legendary career of Brian O'Driscoll, Ireland will come out firing in Dublin. An imposing green wave awaits the visiting Scots and the teams’ contrasting history of starting the championship elevate the challenge to a tsunami.
The Irish are traditional fast starters and will be gunning for their ninth first-round victory in the last 10 years. Scotland, conversely, have just once kicked off a Six Nations season with a win – a 20-16 triumph over France in 2006.
The Scots’ dire away record in the competition – they have won just one of their last 17 matches on the road, a 23-20 win over Ireland in 2010, which was their only victory in Dublin since 1998 – and poor recent form – having won just two of their last eight Tests, against Italy and Japan – and it’s clear that the underdogs face an ominous opening assignment.
Scotland will dismiss these worrying facts and take heart from prevailing in the teams’ last encounter. Last year’s 12-8 victory at Murrayfield will fuel the Scots, but it will simultaneously serve as a reminder to Ireland that they cannot afford to take Scotland lightly.
The visitors possess a physical pack that can potentially turn the Test into a dogfight, and in British and Irish Lions duo Sean Maitland and Stuart Hogg they have two game breakers.
Veteran Ireland hooker Rory Best says they are steeling themselves for a brutal physical encounter.
"It's a strong team. Their back row especially are very abrasive. They have a strong front five, so from a forwards point of view it is never easy playing Scotland.
"And with the team they have picked and the pack of forwards they picked, it is going to be very much a case of rolling up the sleeves and preparing for battle on Sunday,” said Best.
"If you look at their back three, they have two Lions there. They play some really nice rugby. They are very dangerous on the fringes and certainly from my point of view, you are looking at that pack and the breakdown is massive.
"We talked about their back row but also with Jim Hamilton and some of their front row, they are very, very dangerous over the ball if you let them get in.
"It's going to be very tough to slow their ball down. They are big men, they carry hard and they are physical around there. It is a great challenge."
Best added that along with the breakdown battle, the contest at line-out time will be crucial after the Scots had the ascendency in the set-piece last year.
"They did fairly well against us last year at Murrayfield and he [Hamilton] is a good line-out operator, but we have Paulie [O'Connell] there now who is a brilliant line-out operator,” said Best.
"We need to make sure when they are moving around and getting up we are accurate. That is throw, lift, catch. Everything needs to be right and on the money.
"Scotland are a team that are going to test you in the line-out. It's called a Test match for a reason. It is to test yourself against the best and Scotland are up there."
Players to watch:
For Ireland: Jonathon Sexton will be a pivotal player in the No.10 jersey and it will be interesting to see whether he receives cheers or jeers from the Dublin crowd following his high-profile move to France. Brian O'Driscoll will also be in the spotlight as he’s been for most of his career, and it will be important for both him and Ireland that he turns in a solid performance first up. In the pack, Cian Healy, Paul O'Connell and Jamie Heaslip will lead the charge.
For Scotland: Stuart Hogg has been the centre of attention since it was confirmed that he will make his comeback this weekend after missing the November internationals through injury. Much will be expected of him, but it remains to be seen whether or not he’s undercooked. His Lions teammate Sean Maitland will be looked upon to provide some much-needed x-factor, while Greig Laidlaw will be the key player for the visitors.
Head to head: Both key clashes will play out in the forwards as the teams vie for clean ball and set-piece superiority. In the first instance, Chris Henry and Kelly Brown will spearhead the teams' surge at the breakdown. Meanwhile, hard-nosed veterans Paul O'Connell and Jim Hamilton will square off in a titanic line-out battle that promises to be as physical as it will be technical.
2013: Scotland won 12-8, Edinburgh
2012: Ireland won 15-9, Dublin
2011: Ireland won 21-18, Edinburgh
2010: Scotland won 23-20, Dublin
2009: Ireland won 22-15, Edinburgh
Prediction: As aforementioned, Scotland have the pack that can make life difficult for the hosts. If they manage to frustrate Ireland at the breakdown and deliver in the set pieces, they have an ace goal-kicker that could kick them to victory. Ireland, though, are the favourites for a reason. They are more well-rounded and thus pose more threats across the park, not to mention they have home ground advantage and the Schmidt and O'Driscoll factors. Ireland by nine.
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 David Kearney, 13 Brian O'Driscoll, 12 Luke Marshall, 11 Andrew Trimble, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Paul O'Connell, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Martin Moore, 19 Dan Tuohy, 20 Tommy O'Donnell, 21 Isaac Boss, 22 Paddy Jackson, 23 Fergus McFadden.
Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Alex Dunbar, 12 Duncan Taylor, 11 Sean Lamont, 10 Duncan Weir, 9 Greig Laidlaw, 8 David Denton, 7 Kelly Brown (captain), 6 Ryan Wilson, 5 Jim Hamilton, 4 Tim Swinson, 3 Moray Low, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Ryan Grant.
Replacements: 16 Pat MacArthur, 17 Alasdair Dickinson, 18 Geoff Cross, 19 Richie Gray, 20 Johnnie Beattie, 21 Chris Cusiter, 22 Matt Scott, 23 Max Evans.
Date: Sunday, February 2
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Kick-off: 15.00 (15.00 GMT)
Expected weather: Partly to mostly cloudy and windy with a high of 8°C and low of 2°C. SSW winds at 25 to 40 km/h.
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Mike Fraser (New Zealand)
TMO: Carlo Damasco (Italy)
By Quintin van Jaarsveld