Dan Sheridan/INPHO Ireland beat Scotland twice last year.
# Showdown
Ireland on 'red alert' for Van der Merwe as Scotland aim to turn the corner
Ireland have enjoyed dominance of this fixture in recent times.

IRELAND ARE HONEST enough with themselves to know that if Stuart Hogg had grounded the ball at the Aviva Stadium in February 2020, instead of knocking it on over the tryline with no one around him, Scotland could very easily have beaten them in the first game of the Andy Farrell era.

Instead, that 19-12 success goes down as one of the nine wins Ireland have enjoyed in their 10 most recent clashes with the Scots. Domination is a fair description.

While they got out of jail to a certain extent in last year’s Six Nations, Ireland also delivered one of the best performance of the Farrell era against the Scots in 2020 as they claimed third place in the Autumn Nations Cup last December with a 31-16 win against Gregor Townsend’s side.

Even that day, the Scots looked red hot in the opening 30 minutes to lead 9-3 but ultimately it was another case of flattering to deceive as Ireland pulled clear with scores just before and after half-time.

This year, Townsend’s men have beaten England in Twickenham and appeared to be on course for victory over Wales until Zander Fagerson was sent off. Their meeting with France in round three of this Six Nations was postponed due to a Covid-19 outbreak in the French camp. They won’t have played for four weeks come kick-off on Sunday, so it’s hard to know if they’ll be well-rested or rusty.

Paul O’Connell’s sense is that this is the best Scotland team he has ever come across in his professional career, but the Scots have been talked up plenty of times before. 

Their most recent win over Ireland came on the opening day of the 2017 Six Nations when the Irish team bus arrived to Murrayfield late, much to the anger of Joe Schmidt. Johnny Sexton was missing due to injury that day, with Paddy Jackson starting in his place as Scotland made a fast start thanks to Stuart Hogg’s try and won 27-22.

stuart-hogg Tommy Dickson / INPHO Scotland captain Stuart Hogg. Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

Hogg, now the captain, will be crucial again this Sunday if the Scots are to start turning their dire record against Ireland around. 

Despite playing a game fewer than most, Hogg has beaten more defenders [14] and made more linebreaks [six] than anyone else in this championship, but has also been prominent with his passing [18] and kicks from hand [12].

Hogg’s contributions with the boot have been important in a Scotland team that certainly seems to be playing with more tactical maturity and patience. The maverick Finn Russell has kicked 28 times in two games so far, with Scotland kicking for territorial gain, to get the ball back in better counter-attacking positions, and to score. Ali Price’s deft assist for Darcy Graham against Wales was the best illustration of the kick-to-score mentality.

Hogg and Russell are the two main stars of the Scottish backline but the imposing Duhan van der Merwe has quickly become an important figure since his debut last autumn.

“He’s seriously powerful,” said Ireland’s Jordan Larmour yesterday. “He’s very quick. He scored that try against us [in the Autumn Nations Cup] where he picked and went, and went under the sticks.

“He’s a massive threat for them, really powerful, really strong so when he gets the ball, red alert.”

With eight defenders beaten in his two games so far, van der Merwe will be sent thundering at the Ireland defence again this weekend. Of course, the backline will be dependent on their pack to allow them to fire against Farrell’s side.

duhan-van-der-merwe-and-caelan-dorris Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Duhan van der Merwe scored against Ireland in the Autumn Nations Cup. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

The Scottish lineout is operating at 92% so far, better than anyone else’s, but then Ireland’s lineout defence is the best in the championship. Rory Sutherland is a weapon at loosehead prop, but the Irish scrum has also been in great nick.

Carriers like Hamish Watson, Jamie Ritchie, and Jonny Gray will need to win the gainline for the Scots.

With a forecast for plenty of rain in Edinburgh this weekend, it will be a day for rolling the sleeves up and defence – Steve Tandy has had an impact there for the Scots – will be just as important. 

Ireland are the slight favourites in most quarters but this promises to be a very tight encounter. The referee for this weekend is Romain Poite and he could be as crucial as anyone on the pitch at Murrayfield.

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