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Farrell's Ireland must quash renewed Scottish confidence in Murrayfield

Gregor Townsend’s side believe they are better placed to end Ireland’s dominance of this fixture.

Johnny Sexton at Murrayfield yesterday.
Johnny Sexton at Murrayfield yesterday.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

IRELAND’S VISITS TO Edinburgh have been a mixed bag on the last three occasions. 

Think back to 2015 and it was a glorious day for Joe Schmidt’s side as they enjoyed a convincing 40-10 win and then had to watch on in agony and, finally, ecstasy as England and France did battle in the closing game of the championship, the 55-35 scoreline in Paris confirming Ireland’s second consecutive title on points difference.

The Scottish Rugby Union was kind enough to allow Irish fans back into Murrayfield to watch their team lift the Six Nations trophy. That jubilant night feels like it belongs in another stratosphere amidst this interminable lockdown.

Schmidt and Ireland then endured the frustration of 2017 when Johnny Sexton was injured and they lost 27-22 in the opening round of the championship. That day is perhaps most memorable for Schmidt’s fury at Ireland’s bus being late to the stadium. He never quite got over that commute. 

In 2019, a 22-13 victory featured a beautiful trademark Schmidt set-piece try that saw Sexton setting Jacob Stockdale away but it proved to be one of the few high points in a miserable last year of the Schmidt era.

Today [KO 3pm, Virgin/BBC], Andy Farrell needs it to be one of the happy occasions at Murrayfield against a Scotland side that appears to be in better nick than was the case last year, when they very nearly beat Ireland in Dublin in the Six Nations before delivering a disappointing showing in the Autumn Nations Cup in December.

The lack of crowd means home advantage is reduced, of course, but the Scots have confidence after their stirring win against England earlier in this Six Nations. They did lose to Wales in round two but their cause wasn’t helped by a red card for Zander Fagerson – even if the sending off shouldn’t gloss over their deficiencies in giving up a strong first-half lead.

stuart-hogg-celebrates-scoring-a-try-with-finn-russell Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell are key men for the Scots. Source: Craig Watson/INPHO

The Scots haven’t played for four weeks due to the postponement of their clash with France and it’s hard to know whether that leaves them rusty or physically fresh. Gregor Townsend has argued that it’s very much the latter.

The Scotland boss has made four changes to his team, with Sean Maitland coming in on the right wing because the Scots are expected an aerial challenge and the Saracens wing is better in the air than Darcy Graham.

WP Nel is a very able replacement for the suspended Zander Fagerson, while Jamie Ritchie returns to complete a very combative Scottish back row with Matt Fagerson and Hamish Watson, whose metres after contact are always impressive. 

The final change sees Sam Johnson come into midfield alongside Chris Harris, who has been a threat but will have to defend well against Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose. 

Keen to carry momentum from the win over Italy two weekends ago, Farrell has limited himself to three changes. The experienced Cian Healy rotates back in at loosehead for Dave Kilcoyne, while Rob Herring’s lineout throwing gets him the nod ahead of Rónan Kelleher, who drops onto what looks like an explosive bench alongside Kilcoyne, Ryan Baird, and Jack Conan.

Keith Earls is back in on the right wing, with Jordan Larmour reverting to the bench, and Farrell will be hoping the Munster man’s experience and rounded skillset come to the fore under the pressure of this tie.

Ireland haven’t been able to get the best out of their back three players on a consistent basis under Mike Catt’s guidance as attack coach, with James Lowe still waiting to get his chance to explode into life at Test level rather than just using his massive left boot to kick.

james-lowe-comes-up-against-jacopo-trulla Ireland still haven't got the best out of James Lowe with ball in hand. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

This fixture is usually decided by the strength of the Irish forwards. With Tadhg Furlong showing signs of a return to his best, Iain Henderson and James Ryan combining well in the second row, and Tadhg Beirne adapting to the blindside flank again, there is much to like about this Irish pack. They will look to make gains at maul time.

Will Connors will attempt to deny the Scots momentum and show his attacking skillset again, while CJ Stander will be as hard-working as ever.

With Jamison Gibson-Park starting again at scrum-half, the forwards need to provide quick, clean ball for the Leinster man to spark, while captain and out-half Johnny Sexton thrives with that kind of possession too.

Scotland have their own stars hoping to be fed quality ball, with out-half Finn Russell, left wing Duhan van der Merwe, and captain Stuart Hogg capable of cutting any defence to shreds in the right circumstances.

Hogg and Russell also bring a more mature kicking game than has been the case with Scotland in recent years, one of the reasons Townsend will believe his side are better equipped to topple Ireland for the first time in his tenure.

With Lions contenders like Rory Sutherland, Jonny Gray, Watson, and Ritchie up front, the Scots will also believe they can make a far greater impact there than before.

Farrell’s Ireland must quash this latest spurt of Scottish belief or else they are facing into a miserable final Six Nations week that ends with Eddie Jones’ newly-energised England coming to Dublin.

Scotland:

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15. Stuart Hogg (captain)
14. Sean Maitland
13. Chris Harris
12. Sam Johnson
11. Duhan van der Merwe
10. Finn Russell
9. Ali Price

1. Rory Sutherland
2. George Turner
3. WP Nel
4. Scott Cummings
5. Jonny Gray
6. Jamie Ritchie
7. Hamish Watson
8. Matt Fagerson

Replacements:

16. David Cherry
17. Jamie Bhatti 
18. Simon Berghan
19. Grant Gilchrist
20. Nick Haining
21. Scott Steele
22. Huw Jones
23. Darcy Graham

Ireland:

15. Hugo Keenan
14. Keith Earls
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. James Lowe
10. Johnny Sexton (captain)
9. Jamison Gibson-Park

1. Cian Healy
2. Rob Herring
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Iain Henderson
5. James Ryan
6. Tadhg Beirne
7. Will Connors
8. CJ Stander

Replacements:

16. Rónan Kelleher
17. Dave Kilcoyne
18. Andrew Porter
19. Ryan Baird
20. Jack Conan
21. Conor Murray
22. Billy Burns
23. Jordan Larmour

Referee: Romain Poite [FFR].
Assistant referees: Mathieu Raynal [FFR] and Andrea Piardi [FIR].
TMO: Alexandre Ruiz [FFR].

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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