SCOTLAND v IRELAND @ MURRAYFIELD, SATURDAY 9TH FEBRUARY 2019.
Kick-off 2.15pm. Live on BBC (UK), FR2 (France), Virgin Media (Ireland), DMAX (Italy), NBC (USA)
Scotland: Stuart Hogg; Tommy Seymour, Huw Jones, Sam Johnson, Sean Maitland; Finn Russell, Greig Laidlaw©; Allan Dell, Stuart McInally, Simon Berghan, Grant Gilchrist, Jonny Gray, Ryan Wilson, Jamie Ritchie, Josh Strauss. Substitutes: Fraser Brown, Jamie Bhatti, D’Arcy Rae, Ben Toolis, Rob Harley, Ali Price, Peter Horne, Blair Kinghorn.
Ireland: Rob Kearney; Keith Earls, Chris Farrell, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale; Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rory Best©, Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, Quinn Rou, Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien, Jack Conan. Substitutes: Sean Cronin, Dave Kilcoyne, Andrew Porter, Ultan Dillane, Josh van der Flier, John Cooney, Joey Carbery, Jordan Larmour.
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
IRELAND’S defeat to England just seven days ago provides a fascinating back-drop to this clash. The Grand Slam is gone but a bonus point win will keep Joe Schmidt’s side in the hunt for the Six Nations title – although they are now relying on someone else doing them a favour by knocking over England. Collective and personal pride is also going to be an important factor here, with the men in green desperate to restore their reputation as one the most physically uncompromising teams in world rugby after being bullied out of last weekend’s match.
The visitors have not been helped by the loss of four key players to injury in Robbie Henshaw (dead-leg), Garry Ringrose (tight hamstring), Devin Toner (rolled ankle) and CJ Stander (facial injury), although the return of Rob Kearney will provide huge solidity at the back, and Sean O’Brien is one of the most formidable back-row players in the world.
Schmidt, their famously analytical and detailed head coach, is not going to throw the baby out with the bath water after one defeat. The Irish will bring their usual organisation levels and physicality to this clash, but perhaps enact all that with an extra edge of aggression.
Gregor Townsend, meanwhile, will draw encouragement from how England neutered Ireland’s strengths last week, but will also recognise that his team do not have the same raw power to emulate the Vunipola brothers and co, so must play to their own strengths. The key will be manufacturing quick ball which can be used to get around Ireland’s oppressive inside defence and exploit the gaps which inevitably open up in the wider channels by the midfield coming up so fast.
Scotland have lost tight-head prop WP Nel and blindside flanker Sam Skinner from last week, but we shouldn’t overlook the fact that Simon Berghan anchors the scrum pretty effectively against France, England and Ireland during the last Six Nations so is no novice at this level, while Josh Strauss had one of his good days in a Scotland jersey last week after coming off the bench for Skinner in the 12th minute. Both can do a job, although consistency has been their issue.
For Scotland, an opportunity to open the championship with back-to-back wins for the first time since 1996 beckons. They will be encouraged by their performance for 70 minutes of last week but slightly troubled by the final period, when they lost focus completely amid a flurry of late substitutions. The home team have a fair but more experience and firepower coming off the bench this week, most notably in Fraser Brown, Ben Toolis, Peter Horne and Blair Kinghorn – but the major challenge is going to be ensuring that they are still in the hunt as the game enters the final quarter.
WHAT THEY SAID
Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw on the importance of Scotland winning this game to show that they are serious contenders –
That’s probably a fair comment. If we want to go on and take the next step, it’s games like this we need to win against quality opposition. Ireland are certainly that, they’ve proved that over the last couple of years in the competition and are one of the best teams in the world. We have a lot of respect for them and if we want to win tomorrow we’ll need to play one of our best games.
Ireland captain Rory Best on how Ireland will respond to last weekend’s defeat to England –
There’s a lot of frustration in the camp after last week and it was a bit around the way we were perceived to be bullied, but it was probably mostly around our accuracy. We felt that to get into the game we need to be accurate, that sort of comes hand in hand with physicality for us because it allows us to get phases, it allows us to get carries, it allows us to get ruck cleans – it gets us out of our own half and it allows us to attack a bit more in defence.
So, the accuracy last week was the thing we felt let us down the most and that’s what made the review tough, but they’re always tough with Joe anyway. The good thing is it’s a seven day turnaround to go again, and it wasn’t one of the fallow weeks that you have to wait two weeks.
We’re going to have to produce something significantly better than last week. But that’s always the goal for us. We fell down last week but it doesn’t mean we throw everything out and attempt to start again. We’ve built a lot of things over the last number of years and it’s times like this where you have to stick to what you know. You just ask a little bit more individually from the players to produce something collectively with a few players coming in who didn’t play last week.
They’ll be looking to make a point that they should have been involved last week. We have to make sure we get our things right because if we produce something similar, the Scots are a great team and they’ve shown us that as recently here as two years ago.
Scotland defence coach Matt Taylor on the suggestion that Ireland have become predictable –
What I admire about Ireland, and why it’s always difficult preparing against them, is that they have these signature plays. Joe Schmidt is good at looking at other teams and finding weaknesses. It is hard because there will be certain patterns that they play but they will pull out something you haven’t seen. Other sides might bring out the same move week after week and you tend to be able to prepare for them in training. Ireland don’t do that so much so it is always a bit more difficult.
Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw (again) on how the weather could impact the game –
Everybody knows the way Scotland want to play the game. We won’t really deviate from that, but we’ve got to be smart and pick the times when we play, so we will get a gauge on the weather when we arrive tomorrow and set a game plan for that.
I think it’s good for us being at home when the weather is like this. The way the wind is at Murrayfield, sometimes it can be pretty tricky, so hopefully our experience of playing here a little bit more than the Irish boys can be to our advantage.
If it comes in like it’s meant to, it’s difficult, certainly more difficult for your nines and 10s trying to judge your passing game, your kicking game, everything really. It’s vitally important your half-backs give the team direction on days like that and make sure you get the ball in the right areas of the field to allow the team to score points.
THREE KEY CLASHES
Finn Russell v Johnny Sexton
The world seemed to turn on its head for these two playmakers of contrasting style last weekend. The Scotsman was the epitome of calm assurance, playing the percentages expertly, only opening up when the odds were stacked firmly in his favour, and executing it all with razor-sharp precision. The Irishman, meanwhile, was flustered, which is not in itself unusual – he is always nipping at those around him, whether it be team-mates, opponents or referees – but there was a distinct lack of his trademark control out there, which was evident throughout but most blindingly obvious in his interception pass which handed Henry Slade England’s bonus-point securing fourth try.
We’ve always known that Russell, on his day, is virtually untouchable, but the frustrating thing has been his inability to temper his game to suit the situation. You can bet your bottom dollar that Russell won’t be given the same space and time as he was afforded last week, and with an amber weather warning issued for tomorrow afternoon, he will have to adapt his game accordingly. We are told that his move to play club rugby in France has helped him develop the maturity required to become a really world-class number 10 – this weekend will be a major step towards proving or wrecking that theory.
Sexton is not the type of player or character to be written off after one bad game, but the pressure is definitely on the 33-year-old, with Ireland’s charge towards the World Cup needing to be redirected back on track now, before a blip becomes a full-blown crisis.
Sean Maitland v Keith Earls
Selected ahead of hat-trick hero Blair Kinghorn, fit again Maitland has a lot to prove. His experience and assuredness under the high ball is what got him the nod, and, with treacherous conditions expected tomorrow, that part of his game is going to be rigorously put to the test. Maitland will also be keen to put pressure on Earls, who had a torrid time – including a yellow-card inducing late hit from Tom Curry – under Owen Farrell’s pin-point accurate aerial bombardment last week, before being taken off at the break with a knock.
Josh Strauss v Jack Conan
Strauss has had some huge performances in a Scotland jersey, such as France 2017 when the big number eight was absolutely monumental in a narrow defeat at the Stade Francais, despite suffering a lacerated kidney early in the match. However, by his own admission, the South African-born 32-year-old has struggled to consistently reach the heights, with his near anonymous performance against Fiji on Gregor Townsend’s first summer tour in 2017 being credited for the 17-months he then spent in the international wilderness, before a spate of back-row injuries prompted his recall in November,
He came off the bench last week and put in one bis his big shifts against Italy, and it is vital for Scotland that the Sale Sharks man – who can offer a really physical dimension to Scotland’s back-row – delivers again this weekend against a side who will be desperate to impose themselves.
Conan has got his chance with Ireland thanks to CJ Stander’s facial injury. This will be his 12th cap, three and a half years after making his debut against the same opposition at flanker in a 2015 World Cup warm-up match in Dublin, and only his second Six Nations start. Like his opposite number, the Leinster-man has not always performed at a level required to command international selection, but says he has worked hard to improve his defence so that he can be seen as more than a powerful ball-carrier.
“When you break it all down, rugby’s a simple game. Carrying the ball is one of my best attributes. It’s what I feel I’ve been put into the team to do this weekend, to make sure we are getting over the gain-line and making sure we win collisions when we don’t have the ball,” said Conan earlier this week. Scotland know what is coming, the question is: what are they going to do about it?
SCOTLAND’S RECORD AGAINST IRELAND
Played 134 – Won 67 – Drawn 5 – Lost 62
1 March 1997: Scotland 38 Ireland 10
16 February 2003: Scotland 6 Ireland 36
21 March 2015: Scotland 10 Ireland 40
Six most recent matches
2 February 2014: Ireland 26 Scotland 6
21 March 2015: Scotland 10 Ireland 40
15 August 2015: Ireland 28 Scotland 22
19 March 2016: Ireland 35 Scotland 25
4 February 2017: Scotland 27 Ireland 22
10 March 2018: Ireland 28 Scotland 8
LAST TIME OUT
SCOTLAND were left rueing missed opportunities when the head of steam they had built up with back-to-back home victories over France and England came to an abrupt halt against a typically clinical Irish performance in Dublin.
It maybe didn’t feel like there was a 20-point margin between the teams at the conclusion of the match, and while Gregor Townsend’s team could take encouragement from having really made their opponents work for the win – which hadn’t been the case in their previous away game in Cardiff at the start of the championship – their inability to transfer pressure on the field into pressure on the score-board left the Scots head coach lamenting that his team were three years behind their opponents in terms of maturity.
Key moments cost Scotland, such as Huw Jones’ failure to deliver a scoring pass to Stuart Hogg midway through the first half, and Pete Horne’s interception which let Jacob Stockdale in for the first of his two tries; but you always had the feeling that Ireland had that extra gear required to really grind out the victory if required. It didn’t get that close, and, in truth, the hosts fully merited their win, which set them up nicely for their Grand Slam achieving victory over England the following week.
A bright moment came in the 51st minute for Scotland with Blair Kinghorn’s well-taken try, in his first international start, but Ireland bounced back to claim their bonus-point score and re-assert their understated but very definite dominance with try number four through replacement hooker Sean Cronin.
Ireland: R Kearney; K Earls, G Ringrose, B Aki, J Stockdale; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Best, T Furlong, J Ryan, D Toner, P O’Mahony, D Leavy, C Stander. Substitutes: S Cronin, J McGrath, A Porter, I Henderson, J Murphy, K Marmion, J Carbery, J Larmour.
Scotland: S Hogg; B Kinghorn, H Jones, P Horne, S Maitland; F Russell, G Laidlaw; G Reid, S McInally, S Berghan, G Gilchrist, J Gray, J Barclay, H Watson, R Wilson. Substitutes: F Brown, J Bhatti, W Nel, T Swinson, D Denton, A Price, N Grigg, L Jones.
Referee: W Barnes (England).
Ireland: Tries: Stockdale 2, Murray, Cronin. Cons: Sexton 4.
Scotland: Try: Kinghorn. Pen: Laidlaw.
Scoring sequence: 0-3; 5-3; 7-3; 12-3; 14-3 (h-t) 19-3; 21-3; 21-8; 26-8; 28-8.